And Then to Take Them

Every evening I walk the young steer across the pasture to his pen, where I separate him from his mother so that in the morning I might take her milk. And every evening we play the same game: He ducks and dodges and feints, moves I know so well I can see them coming and match them long before they’ve arrived. He’s more than a year old, weighs a good 600-pounds, and could easily elude or otherwise overpower me, yet this lasts only a couple dozen seconds or so, until he has proved to himself that he’s at least made an effort. Then he trots complacently down the hoof-worn path directly into his pen. I latch the gate behind him and go pick blueberries.

I have been slowly reading the book Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson. It’s a dense book, and I don’t want to say too much about it, because then maybe you’ll decide you don’t need to read it, which would mean you’d miss out on a whole lot. In short, Jenkinson makes the case that death deserves more than our culture currently allows it, that we short change the experience (and ourselves) by not fully attending to it, by refusing to face it head on: The grief, the pain, the lack of control, the simple reality of it, the inescapable truth that it is death itself that makes life so worth living. Reading it, I am reminded of my experience surrounding the death of one of my oldest and best friends (I wrote about it here). It profoundly affected my understanding of death, and of grief; it was the first time I truly understood how rich both can be, and that they do not diminish the quality of our lives, but actually enhance them. I guess that’s all I’ll say on the subject for now, except to add that there’s a short film on Jenkinson and his work called Griefwalker. It’s worth watching.

Wait, no, I do have more to say, which is that like many (most?) people, I question choices I have made, things I have done. I try to live without regret, or in a way that I think will protect me from future regret, even as I realize how absurd this is, because how can we possibly know what we might later wish we’d done differently? Yet I believe it true that it’s most often the things we don’t do that we later count among our failings, and perhaps for all of Jenkinson’s nearly 400-pages on the subject (which I’d still recommend you read), the real secret of dying wise is living wise, which is maybe nothing more than having the courage to see the chances as they arise. And then to take them.

Music: What better way to recover from death talk than a little Leonard Cohen



25 thoughts on “And Then to Take Them”

  1. So true what you observe… I was with my brother when he passed. He 19, I 16. My life altered in seconds. It framed the story line of my life thereafter.

  2. This book has long been on my list to read but, as you can imagine, it has been easy to put off. I guess I’ve felt like I had to work up to reading it. Thanks for encouraging me to put it on the top of my list. I have seen bits of the film, too, and it is thought-provoking to say the least.

  3. I have requested the book and video from my library. May I be so bold as to suggest Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Life changing…

    1. Just read the description of this book, Linda. Thank you for the suggestion. I used to work in nursing facilities and I am reminded of many cases in which I saw older folks living fully and others who weren’t and it was not always completely dependent upon their specific physical limitations or ailments as one might expect. I’ve put it on my ‘to read’ list. 🙂

  4. That book sure is changing one’s view and understanding on and of life & death.
    I look at my copy on the shelf, many brightly colored marker sticking out of it, knowing I will read it again, reading those pages and passages I have marked to come back to.

    I can only suggest to get the book. Spoken words are uttered and gone, but with the book you can go over a sentence or a passage again and again, letting it sink in. Because it does take time to let his words and meaning sink in.

  5. Very interesting, Ben. I did not know about this book, or this guy. Of course being the age I presently am sharpens my interest. But you’re right, the universality of death–its presence everywhere in the midst of life (which we can choose either to ignore or acknowledge) is central to how we experience the latter. The only thought I can add is that awareness of the reality of death has always been an essential part of buddhist practice, and is in many ways, according to that teaching, the key to joy. That is, if we can bring that awareness close to us.

    Thanks for bringing a difficult but rewarding topic to our attention. (Ah, “attention”–another key word.) I’ve always considered you a closet Buddhist. (Excuse me, buddhist.)

  6. At the risk of monopolizing your space, this post has stayed with me and I had to come back and comment further. You once wrote that you were not old but were old enough to imagine being old. That phrase has stuck with me. I have invoked it more than once and it has played a significant role in recent decisions we have made as a family (primarily, our impending move to a new farm in a new area.) Thank you for that bit of wisdom.
    I also have had this topic of living and dying wisely of late (which may be the same thing, depending on how you look at it.) Both my dog and my uncle were diagnosed with cancer about the same time. My dog enjoyed her peanut-butter covered medicine, rolled around in the dirt, chased the deer and did all the other things she’s always done until she couldn’t anymore and we put her down just last week with much love and tears and ceremony. My uncle is, reportedly, in great pain, with little that can be done other than to medicate him till he sleeps the vast majority of the time. I am struck by the luxury that we have with our animals. We are able to try to stack the scales a little more toward fullness of life rather than its length in years. Don’t mean to ramble on but you have succeeded once again in getting me to think more deeply and I am most grateful. Peace!

  7. Thanks Ben. It’s a book worth reading for sure. I read it cover-to-cover and it took some time. Dense as you say. I would suggest that if readers are put off either by the length or seeming effort, that it would be possible to pick chapters that appeal, perhaps the first 3 and the final few, and if intrigued go back and read the rest. Jenkinson’s is an eyes-wide-open survey of the failures of our culture in viewing death as the one sure thing coming as the result of being born, and the tragic consequences of eyes-wide-shut. We’re all heading in the same direction, but each of us has a unique, personal dance coming…

  8. I should read that, as I have death issues. If people didn’t have to die from the stupidity of our culture I might despise death less, but I think that is my main issue with it.

  9. Thanks for the book recommendation. Someone in the thread mentioned “Being Mortal” and I remember loving the interview on NPR with Atul Gawande. Everyone should check it out. https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/atul-gawande-on-being-mortal/

    I have been fascinated with Death since I was a young child and my dad taught me about Egyptian Mythology and I was fascinated by Anubis. It is scary to no longer exist, but we do exist to someone don’t we? I worked in hospice and saw those who were terrified and the very few who just accepted the possibility of Death coming sooner to them than others. I admit I am not fully comfortable with dying and it is because it is unknown. Yet I want to live fully so if I did die right now, my young son would remember his mom as someone who absolutely enjoyed life.

  10. Since everyone is recommending all these books, I might as well toss in “Who Dies?” by Stephen Levine. Stephen is (or was, I’m not sure if he himself has died) a Vipassana teacher who worked with the dying and had much to say on the subject. It was published in 1982, but doesn’t seem any less relevant now.

  11. Hi Ben. I tried reading Die Wise a couple years back, but somehow could not get drawn into it, just read pages here and there, maybe it was not the right time yet. I really did enjoy watching the documentary “Will for the Woods” about green burial and one man’s gentle end of living. I just listened to Dr. Scott Eberle on Rewild Yourself, and it was quite a rewarding conversation: http://www.danielvitalis.com/rewild-yourself-podcast/on-being-a-mortal-animal-dr-scott-eberle-156

  12. I was fortunate enough to see Stephen Jenkinson speak in Toronto a few months ago. I’ve never laughed and cried so much in one sitting. It was an absolutely amazing evening, hearing his stories in-person. Wow.
    Another powerful book you may want too add to your list: The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Yep, it’s a good one, too.
    As always, thank you for sharing your writing. It’s a real gift.

  13. Ben, just wanted to drop in on this older post as it was here I first heard about Die Wise. Got it on Audible and spent the next 2 months absorbed in Jenkinson’s words. I haven’t stopped recommending it. So thanks for the great tip. Much to think about and absorb. Going to listen a second time in the coming months and also want a hard copy. It’s a difficult book to describe to others, I tend to get that not me I’m immortal look and then the eyes glaze over! So fascinating to me that we can count on only two things in this life, birth and death. There’s no preparing for birth, not that I know of! But death, that’s something to give time and thought to. I’ve lost two family members to sudden deaths, my grandson to suicide and sister in the Vegas shooting in the last eleven months and I’ve given much contemplation and thought to this vexing subject. I can’t begin to tell you how many times well meaning people say they have no idea how I can deal with this and I often wonder if they think death only visits other people. Thanks for your blog, I like stepping into your life and thoughts. It’s much appreciated!

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