My clothes cling to me, cold and dry, while the rest of my skin laps up the cool salt spray of the breakers. I slow my pace to a crawl with my pulse pounding in my ears, adding tempo to every stride. The footprints trailing me are the freshest of the morning.
In my head, I have this beach to myself. My recollections float here like flotsam — adrift, spreading further out into the pelagic expanse of my memory.
But memories are all conjured images, summoned up from some part of me that I can’t return to. I don’t feel or smell or taste these things anymore except with my mind’s tongue, nose and eyes.
That’s how the past works, and it’s just as well. People don’t reside in the present. We don’t live in the here and now but teeter between what has been or what will be. Even as I write this, I long to feel the soft sand on my back again, to lay at the edge of the shore, with the foamy seawater surging and receding around me, blanketing me, then leaving me exposed.
I want to remember the fear rising in me when I stared out into the yawning gray Pacific as I held my frail mortality on the doorstep of a force utterly beyond myself.
If I hadn’t pissed earlier, I definitely would have then.
When I began this column, I set out with some pie-in-the-sky notions about changing the way people think, particularly in regard to ideas they feel certain of: racism, sexual politics, the environment, et cetera. Was I drunk? There’s a good chance.
I tried to address issues prominent in the mainstream consciousness by engaging in a dialogue and then doing some moralizing of my own. I tried to do it with nuance and humor. But now I don’t know what message to leave you with.
I’ve heard pleas not to leave you with a schmaltzy farewell piece in which I gush about what an “amazing experience this was.” Personally, I also don’t want to cop out and tell you how I think love will conquer all or some such malarkey.
I’m not going to tell you to “carpe diem,” because you’ve heard that before. Instead, I want to shift your focus onto your own impending demise.
Don’t seize the day, I say. Seize death.
What I mean is, you don’t have to go and lie by the sea to view your own mortality cast against a backdrop of the vast unknown, as I did. Death dwarfs any ocean.
You do have to see that being present and living in the “now” isn’t possible if you conceptualize death merely as something inevitable and waiting for you at the end of your life.
Rather, death should be your constant companion.
I suspect that when you think about your life, you always picture yourself at the halfway point, especially when you’re young. Death is the province of the elderly and the ill; it does not bear on youth. Death is inaccessible, distant and easy to put out of mind.
When you do consider death, you think about the commonly associated signifiers of death’s narrative: the gruesome act, the tragedy, the mourners, the epitaph, the ceremony and the cost. You don’t actually sit with the reality of your own destruction.
It’s easy not to do so when the past — the aggregate of mementos, memories and people of your life — leaves you with the impression that you’ve traversed a long stretch of reality to arrive at the present.
And yet you know that the past feels erased in the blink of an eye. Just ask that older, grumpier bastard in the mirror where the time went.
Our perception of distance between where we came from and where we are reinforces the continuity of our self, or the idea that we (despite changes) are still the same person through time. This is pretty useful when you come to account for who you are. But this idea of distance is also mapped onto our perception of death.
Unlike the moment of our birth, the distance between us and death is an illusion. Death is defined in the present moment, and when it happens, the shadow that was our imagined future collapses. All possibilities end when we do.
That’s harsh. I get that, but I only mention this because I really, truly think it’s good for you.
If you can sit with the thought of your own death in the present, there is a reflexivity that must occur. You won’t be able to ignore the wasted aspects of your life.
This means you might rethink staying at the job you hate. You might take a chance on love for once. You might be kinder to your parents. You might find the courage to follow your dreams.
If you can sit with your own death comfortably, then you might reconsider adding more bullshit and misery to a world with no shortage of the stuff.
You’re here. You probably didn’t ask for this. And you will be gone.
Just like this column.
Zion Barrios writes the Monday column on social topics that rarely enter open conversation. You can contact him at [email protected].