On The Finite Nature Of Humans

In the grand grief-scape of my heart, there’s comfort in knowing there’s scientific prowess behind the “here, but gone” belief.

March 25, 2020

July Westhale
Going Going Gone
Katie Tandy

love March in California. It’s full of bursting tulips (my favorite), trees that look like fat-flowered Q-tips, and a renewed sense of aliveness, especially after the invariable dregs of winter.

The downside of March is, for me, typically the emotional riptide that is Pisces season: one of the seasonal moments that we turn inward, consider life alongside death, contemplate our own spirituality, body, lack of body, and/or position as people who live cyclically. This reflection and emotional tsunami is necessary, sure. But it feels heavy.

I was listening to “On Being” yesterday — in particular, an episode with Jill Tarter wherein the cosmic ability of humans was brought to inspection. While the idea of the cosmos often leaves me feeling marginally panicked (on an existential level), I found the discussion optimistic, and hopeful.

The cosmos has always been terrifying to me for the same reasons it’s been wonderful: its enormity has reminded me of my insignificance, or at least my impermanence — which is, ultimately, a humbling experience. It gives meaning to the work we do on this mortal plane, it gives us a timeline, a deadline (actual dead line), and it bestows upon us the great responsibility to wonder at the sheer joy of being.

When asked about how humans can help to stop the destruction of the planet, Tarter responded something to the effect of “Humans must recognize the finite nature of the world.”

My heart seized.

A month ago, my good friend Martin died following a three year battle with colon cancer. We — meaning those in his immediate community, our group of friend-family — had multiple years to prepare ourselves for his absence. And yet. It’s nearly impossible to grapple with the fact that he is no longer here. In this we find what Joan Didion calls “magical thinking.”

In the anthropological sense, magical thinking is believing — in a gauzy animal-gut way — that if a person hopes for something enough or performs the right actions that an unavoidable event can be averted.

In other words, it is nearly impossible to grapple with the finite nature of humans.

Perhaps this is why we associate the cosmos with those we have lost (lost, in and of itself, being a questionable adjectival choice here). Starlight can take years to reach our eyes and the very rays that do are often all that’s left of the star itself; many of the burning orbs we see are actually long-dead. Stars — and the nature of their death — can somehow occupy the same landscape — the same…place? The same physical location, or metaphysical, or spiritual — as people like Martin, my friend Bean, my mother. They’re all gone. Still, somehow, impossibly here.

Perhaps the underbelly of Spring that makes it nearly unbearable is that it is joy edged with sad. It is bursting with life, but on the other side a stark reminder of loss. We emerge from the internal world of chill and dark into the external one of light and blooms, but it isn’t as though we ever occupy either forever. As usual, once we become used to something, it changes.

And perhaps that’s the way we can access that connection to the finite. To make sense of it. This may be something as simple as it being a cycle. We can always see the end of something and look back and see its beginning.

I return again to Jill Tarter, perhaps because my friend Martin was a scientist and deeply interested in the humanity of the cosmos. Perhaps he found it is as comforting to me as poetry is to know that there is a discourse out there that likens our finite-ness (and our stardust-of-origin selves) to the universe. And not just the physical matter of the universe, though there’s that too, but rather it considers the ways in which our finite selfhood (and recognizing ourselves as such within a finite world) is integral to our own sustainability.

This is not to say that my friend needed to be a part of that cycle at so young an age (he was recently 39). But in the grand grief-scape of my heart, in the way it searches and attempts to makes sense of something as senseless as loss (in all the ways humans do, we’re a sensitive instrument) there is comfort in knowing that there is a scientific prowess to the “here, but gone” strata.

“Where do you think we go when we die?” I once asked my therapist.

“Everywhere,” she said, and I was deeply comforted.

My friend Martin loved plants. He once came over to build me a fence for my garden because I was distressed that the neighbors’ dog was digging things up. After we staked it out and unrolled the fencing, he paused and asked me to take a photo of him next to one of my artichokes, which was nearly ten feet tall, and already thistling early in the summer. In the photo, which I’ve revisited nearly every day since he died, it is the only time I’ve seen him dwarfed by something — his nearly six and a half foot frame is bowed under big, pale green leaves. He is clearly sick in the photo, but radiant.

“You have the largest avocado tree I’ve ever seen,” he would say, in the same way someone would say I love you.

One of my favorite poets by Tess Gallagher is called “Under Stars”. My friend Evan, when we were in Poetry Grad School, would drink scotch until we were dizzy and recite the whole thing to one another.

It begins like this:

“The sleep of this night deepens/because I have walked coatless from the house/carrying the white envelope. All night it will say one name/in its little tin house by the roadside.”

But my favorite line is in the penultimate stanza, and is really the emotional blade of the poem: “I will think of you, you/who are so far away/you have caused me to look up at the stars.”

Let’s tattoo this on our bodies, Evan and I would croon at each other. But we never did. The attempt to make permanent the moment would always fail us — not just the two of us, but us humans. Us collective humans.

The difference between losing someone suddenly (like I did with my mom or my friend Sean who overdosed in his bathroom) rather than someone whose illness is known and lengthy, is that you have more time to be superstitious.

Magical thinking doesn’t come from nowhere; magical thinking fragments the way we consider time — with people, without them, our own time, and our own permanence. Because the thinking is magical (and maybe magical here is coming from fragmentation, or impermanence), it defies the rules of the ordinary, of the logical.

In “Year of Magical Thinking”, Didion illustrates this by going through her husband’s clothing after he dies, getting rid of everything but pausing as she reached his shoes. “I need to keep these,” she thinks to herself, “in case he needs them.”

The last time I saw Martin was just a few days before he died. I stopped by his house, I think knowing from some deep ancient wise place that I was stopping by to say goodbye.

“I want to show you something,” he said, and led me to the back room of the house he shared with his partner. Strung up by string were a dozen or so persimmons, the long ones (the kind no one likes, Martin said, by way of introduction).

He explained to me that he began curing them in the fall, using a Japanese technique called Hoshigaki, which his aunt had taught him.

I’d not seen anything so accidentally beautiful in quite a long time. The persimmons were nearly fully cured, their sugars shaking off their organ-like bodies like coatings of fine snow. Martin reached out and cut one down, slicing it and giving me a section. He chewed thoughtfully for a minute and then said, “They’re not quite ready. A few more weeks.”

What strikes me about this moment, in the thorough-combing of my memory’s archive, is not that my gentle friend had chosen to do something as beautiful as curing persimmons — that was on brand for him. Rather it was that he cured them knowing that he would likely be gone before they were ready to eat. And in that way, he left us himself for when he couldn’t be there anymore, with full understanding of his own finite self.

I miss my friend deeply, with a visceral and visible part of myself, but also with a deeper, older part of myself. And when I look at the Oakland night sky, with it’s cranes reaching upwards and avocado trees of symbolic love, it’s the stars I seek.

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