Live as Though You Did Not Exist

The title of this blog comes from Meister Eckhart, a 13th/14th century theologian and mystic. That quotation has remained with me since I first read it years ago. For me it simply made sense. After having made my fifth–and final–trans-Atlantic move last year, it makes even more sense. Unlike the bar in “Cheers”, I live in a place where nobody knows my name. And I feel quite at home that way. I live in a village in rural Normandie–hamlet really–which is so small, it doesn’t even have a shop of any kind. My neighbours are farmers and their animals. The animals are friendly–and so are the people, but not intrusive. The countryside impacts my life, but not the reverse. I like being encompassed by it.

“Where is this going?”, you ask yourself. Just to this point: I recently finished a novel (The Woods) which deals with the “third stage of life”–if you like such demarcations. The action is set in a mythical retirement community in North Carolina. And it’s not your ordinary retirement community, this one is enchanted. I liken it to a blend on Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades. In this place people’s alter egos come out to play. There is no hiding from themselves. As a baby boomer who came of age in the 1960s and who has seen many relatives and friends age–well or badly–and die, this book is an exploration of how we might, if so inclined, dance towards our final exit. It also examines the culture-collision between parents, who no longer have anything to prove, and their adult children, for whom everything is a stress-filled challenge.

As a former pastor, I have had the awesome privilege of accompanying people to their deaths. Each death was as individual as the person. Some have incorporated me into their lives as a friend, relative or colleague from the past. I sat patiently with a dying Welsh academic, 40 years my senior, who talked about “our” Sunday evening dinners at the college where “we” taught. He then asked me to sing the song we sang together in the evenings. He told me it was based on a German poem–where to start? Call it inspiration–or die Heilige Geist–I started singing, “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten,” and he joined in, “Dass ich so traurig bin…” It was Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was a sacred moment.

And then there was another academic I knew–a combination of Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy–a tall, striking man. As he edged towards death, he thought I was his father and thanked me “for letting him come here.” “Here” was a hospice room, but for him, it seemed to be a delightful summer camp! As I left, he would come to the door and call after me, “Thanks dad! Thanks for letting me come here!” That was heart-piercing for me, in a sweet and poignant way–and I admit I cried. But it was wonderful that, in both of those moments, it didn’t matter who I was. It simply matter that I was and that I was present. Live as though you did not exist.

Well Reader, we’re all heading in the same direction. Can we finally live into who we are and were created to be, with joy and excitement? Or do we go out kicking and screaming? Will death be for us a dreaded enemy or a welcoming friend? Give it some consideration while there’s time–and take a look at The Woods when it comes out later this year.

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