The candlelit story from Solstice 2012
A year ago, I started planning for tonight. In particular, for this moment, after the last candle is snuffed out and we’re left alone in the dark with the knowledge that our world is unfair and that we have nobody to help us but each other.
I wanted to talk about death.
My grandmother died two years ago. The years leading up to her death were painful. She slowly lost her mobility, bones turning frail and muscles weak. She stopped being interested in food. All she could do was sit in her living room and hope her family would come by to visit and talk to her.
Then she started losing her memory, so she had a hard time even having conversations at all.
We tried to humor her, as she asked us repeatedly “what are you working on?” over and over, forgetting the increasingly terse answers we had given only minutes before. But there’s only so many times you can answer the same question before your patience wears thin. The irritation showed on our faces no matter how hard we tried to be understanding.
She lost her rationality, regressing into a child who would argue petulantly with my mother about what to eat, and when to exercise, and visit her friends. She had been a nutritionist for decades. She knew what she was supposed to eat and why. She knew how to be healthy. And she wanted to be healthy. But lost her ability to negotiate her near term and long term desires on her own.
Eventually even deciding to eat at all became painful. Eventually even forming words became exhausting.
Eventually she lost not just her rationality, but her agency. She stopped making decisions. She lay on her bed in the hospital, not even having the strength to complain anymore. My mother got so excited on days when she would throw a fit, because at least she was doing something.
She lost everything that I thought made a person a person, and I stopped thinking of her as one.
Towards the end of her life, I was visiting her at the hospital. I was sitting next to her, being a dutiful grandson. Holding her hand because I knew she liked that. But she seemed like she was asleep, and after 10 minutes or so I got bored and said “alright, I’m going to go find Mom now. I’ll be back soon.”
And she squeezed my hand, and said “No, stay.”
Those two words were one of the last decisions she ever made. One of the last times she had a desire about how her future should be. She made an exhausting effort to turn those desires into words and then breath those words into sounds so that her grandson would spend a little more time with her before she died.
And I was so humiliated that I had stopped believing that inside of this broken body and broken mind was a person who still desperately wanted to be loved.
A week or two later she was gone.
Her funeral was a Catholic Mass. My mom had made me go to church as a child. It always annoyed me. But in that moment, I was so grateful to be able to hold hands with a hundred people, for all of us to speak in unison, without having to think about it, and say:
“Our father, who art in heaven,
hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us of our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
I’m not sure if having that one moment of comforting unity was worth 10 years of attending Catholic mass. It’s a legitimately hard question. I don’t know the answer.
But I was still so frustrated that this comforting ritual was all based on falsehoods. There’s plenty of material out there you can use to create a beautiful secular funeral, but it’s not just about having pretty or powerful words to say. It’s about knowing the words already, having them already be part of you and your culture and your community.
Because when somebody dies, it’s hard to have the energy for novelty. It’s hard to deal with new ideas that will grate slightly against you just because they’re unfamiliar. You want cached wisdom that is simple and beautiful and true, that you share with others, so that when something as awful as death happens to you, you have tools to face it, and you don’t have to face it alone.
I was thinking about all that, as I prepared for this moment.
But my Grandmother’s death was a long time ago. I wanted the opportunity to process it in my own way, in a community that shared my values. But it wasn’t really a pressing issue that bore down on me. Dealing with death felt important, but it was a sort of abstract importance.
And then, the second half of 2012 happened.
A friend from the rationality community e-mailed me, to tell me that their grandmother had died. They described the experience of the funeral, ways in which it was surprisingly straightforward, and other ways in which it was very intense.
While I was reading the e-mail, another friend walked into my apartment and said that their mother had died.
Later, I would learn that a coworker of mine also lost somebody that day as well.
In the space of a minute, death stopped being an abstract concept and became something painfully real. Even if I didn’t know the people who died, my friends were hurting, and I felt their pain.
I wandered off into the night. I forgot to wear a coat, but decided I didn’t care. I wanted to soak in the bitter cold air and wallow in my feelings.
I sang a song about Stonehenge – the song that would one day be rewritten as “Bitter Wind Blown.” At the time, it wasn’t quite good enough at what I needed it for. But it was the only song I knew of that attempts to do what I needed. To grimly acknowledge this specific adversary, to not offer any false hope about the inevitability of victory, but to nonetheless march onward, dragging stones for hundreds of miles, bitterly determined that not quite so many people will die tomorrow as today.
I came back inside. I chatted with another friend about the experience. She offered me what comfort she could. She attempted to offer some words to the effect of “Well, death does have a purpose sometimes. It helps you see the good things – ”
And that… really was not what I needed to hear, at that moment.
The problem with embracing rationality is that you learn to stop flinching away from uncomfortable truths. Cultures the world over have come up with reasons why death isn’t so bad. Some are outright falsehood. “Grandma is smiling down from heaven.” But even world-views like “death is a natural part of life that helps us appreciate the here and now” don’t comfort me anymore. They’re the sort of excuse you make when you’re faced with something unspeakably awful and you have to tell yourself something – anything – to get through it.
A week later, a friend of hers died.
And a week after that, another friend of mine lost somebody.
A week after that, it wasn’t a direct friend of a friend who died, but a local activist was murdered a few blocks from someone’s house, and a friend of mine cancelled plans with me because they were so upset.
Then a hurricane hit New York. Half the city went dark. I went back to my notes I had written for this moment and stared and them.
Winter was coming and I didn’t know what to do. Death is coming, and our community isn’t ready. I set out to create a holiday about death and… it turns out that’s a lot of responsibility, actually.
This was important, this was incredibly important and so incredibly hard to handle correctly. We need a way to process what happened to us, but what happened to each of us is personal. Even if we shared exactly the same values, we all deal with death in our own way. And somehow after all of that, after taking a moment to process it, we need to climb back out of that darkness and end the Solstice ceremony feeling joyful and triumphant and proud to be human, without resorting to lies.
There’s a lot I don’t know how yet, about what to do, or what to say. But here’s what I do know:
My grandmother died. But she lived to her late eighties. She had a family of 5 children who loved her. She had a life full of not just fun and travel and adventure but of scientific discovery. She was a dietitian. She helped do research on diabetes. She was an inspiration to women at a time when a woman being a researcher was weird and a big deal. When I say she had a long, full life, I’m not just saying something nice sounding to make us feel better.
My grandmother won at life, by any reasonable standard.
Not everyone gets to have that, but my grandmother did. She was the matriarch of a huge extended family that all came home for Christmas eve each year, and sang songs and shared food and loved each other. She died a few weeks after Christmas, and that year, everyone came to visit, and honestly it was one of the best experiences of my life.
In the dead of winter, each year, two dozen of people came to Poughkeepsie, to a big house sheltered by a giant cottonwood tree, and were able to celebrate without worrying about running out of food in the spring.
At the darkest time of the year, my mother ran lights up a hundred foot tall pine tree that you could see for miles. We were able to eat because hundreds of miles away, mechanical plows tilled fields in different climates, producing so much food that we literally could feed the entire world, if we could just solve the political problems.
We were able to drive to my grandmother’s house because other mechanical plows crawled through the streets all night, clearing the ice and snow away. Some of us were able to come to my grandmothers house from a thousand miles away, flying through the sky, higher than ancient humans even imagined angels might live.
And my Grandmother died in her late eighties, but she also didn’t die when she was in her seventies and the cancer first struck her. Because we had chemotherapy, and host of other tools to deal with it.
And the most miraculous amazing thing is that this isn’t a miracle. This isn’t a mystery. We know how it came to be, and we have the power to learn to understand it even better, and do more.
In this room, right now, are people who take this all seriously. Dead seriously, who don’t just shout “Hurrah humanity” because shouting things together in a group is fun.
We have people in this room, right now, who are working on fixing big problems in the medical industry. We have people in this room who are trying to understand and help fix the criminal justice system. We have people in this room, dedicating their lives to eradicating global poverty. We have people in this room who are working to make sure that the human race doesn’t destroy itself, before we have a chance to become the people we really want to be.
And while they aren’t in this room, there are friends of mine who would be here if they could, who are doing their part to try and solve this whole death problem once and for all.
And I don’t know whether and how well any of us are going to succeed at any of these things, but… damn, people. You are amazing, and even if only one of you made a dent in some of the problems you’re working on, that… that would just be incredible.
And there are people in this room who aren’t working on anything that grandiose. People who aren’t trying to solve death or save the world from annihilation or alleviate suffering on a societal level. But who spend their lives making art. Music. Writing things sometimes. People who fill their world with beauty and joy and enthusiasm, and pies and hugs and games and… and I don’t have time to give a shout out to everyone in the room but you all know who you are.
This room is full of people who spend their lives making this world less ugly, less a sea of blood and violence and mindless replication. People who are working to make tomorrow brighter than today, in one way or another.
And I am so proud to know all of you, to have you be a part of my life, and to be a part of yours. I love you.
You make this world the sort of place I’d want to keep living, forever, if I could.
The sort of world I’d want to take to the stars.