Singing the Body Electric; or, Thoughts on Death

“But there is something about time. The sun rises and sets. The stars swing slowly across the sky and fade.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

And someone is born, fumbles around for a lifetime, then dies. It’s no wonder so many of us assume time is linear, that there was a beginning, will be an end. But other worldviews understand time as something other than linear; circular, perhaps, or inextricable from situation, from place. I am interested in place, in our connection to place, how we find ourselves connected to a place or places. Stephen Muecke, who explores this in a book called Ancient and Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy, writes: “Many indigenous accounts of the death of an individual are not so much about bodily death as about a return of energy to the place of emanation with which it re-identifies.”

I’m entranced with the idea of a “place of emanation with which an energy re-identifies.” When my body stops and the energy that resides within it wanders off, where is my place of emanation, where is the place with which my energy identifies?

That energy was embodied on the Atlantic coastal plain, near where silt-covered bedrock is exposed by flowing waters, a low-land, humid zone of hardwoods and laurel. But the consciousness that is me has long identified with a landscape of glacial forms, eskers and cirques, bouldered outwash and till, white pine, maple. Who knows what that pesky energy will have in mind. I swear I’ve also left pieces of myself like breadcrumbs on the beaches of Oregon, wind-whipped and wave spew-strewn, and tangled in the carpet juniper of Newfoundland, and Seine-side on a cement quay with the fallen linden leaves. What will my energy make of this? Can it collect itself or am I forever scattered, ghostly traveler, fractured energy brooding on deluge and erosion and the growth of new seeds and old mushrooms?

I’m reminded again of Olivia Laing’s lovely book To the River. She wrote this: “The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really?”

And this, from Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Ode and Elegy in One Flesh”:
Body, you hold us like a lit match
to the skin of life.
Yet when all we’ve been and done and lost
comes home to rest in us,
then rises, moves like ragged herds
grazing every inch of field,

you are what we love.

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