I’ve been thinking recently about the afterlife and, more precisely, how I don’t really want one. That may sound sad, like I need to have a Finding Forrester moment where an idealistic teenager shows me how to dream again, but nevertheless the idea of blankness, of nothingness, seems an immense relief to me. Don’t get me wrong - I love my life, especially the people in it, but while I certainly don’t look forward to death, I don’t fear it, either. Whenever I do die, be it tomorrow or 60 years from now, just burn me up, spread my ashes and move on, knowing that I’m taking the deepest sleep after the world’s longest week. And everyone who knows me knows how I love to sleep.
But while I was watching a butoh dance performance at this year’s TBA Festival, I began rethinking my idea of an afterlife. According to the program, the idea for Kota Yamazaki’s Rise:Rose came about when Yamazaki, who is Japanese, began spending a lot of time in Senegal working with dancers there. The program says, “This experience gave him the idea to develop unique images of heaven, or a world that might come after people die, based on the idea that when people encounter different cultures, as Yamazaki did, they sometimes lose their identities and must then try to re-explore them by finding roots in the far past or even in the unseen future.”
There’s a part of me that’s really enjoys the feeling of rootlessness – the weight of attachment, of caring, of responsibility being lifted. That was the best part of going from a small town to college in NYC, that anonymity, a feeling of being free from the burden of having to act out the roles that I’ve consciously or unconsciously chosen or that others think are appropriate for me. And I am the only person I know who enjoys moving – the feeling of total upheaval, yet optimism; the process of reevaluating what is truly important, the chance to start again.
Watching the frantic, awkward yet delicate performances in Rise:Rose made me realize that maybe when I’m considering the thought of an afterlife, it isn’t the cessation of experience that I want – it’s the cessation of thought, of language, of the end of the written word.
Words are everything to me. If it were socially acceptable to communicate only through writing, I would do it. I am horribly inarticulate when I talk. I lose my train of thought, my sentences trail off, my arms flail everywhere, and I say ‘like’ and ‘you know’ constantly, I continually feel like I speak around my point rather than leveling dead aim.
In writing, however, my expression is on my own terms. I choose my words carefully, but in the choosing, I realize how easily manipulated and distorted words can be. Words betray. They deceive by omission. Anytime you write something, you choose what information to impart and what to ignore, consciously or unconsciously pushing your own values on others.
There is a part of me that prefers the approach of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who frequently used words in his art. For him, words weren’t necessarily crumbs of bread left on a path for you to find your way. They might be hints or clues as to the meaning of a painting, but sometimes they’re red herrings, or used only for their graphic design qualities. He was able to use words to create more mystery, not less.
I don’t think I could ever use words myself in such a careless, disassociated manner, though. I think my problem with words is that, at times, they are so inadequate to experience. As sculptor Andy Goldsworthy said in the film Rivers and Tides, “There’s a world beyond what words can define for me.”
That’s what I love about music. I’ve noticed that, on the whole, I don’t really care about the lyrics to a song. What I care about is the emotion behind the song. Really, could I be an Oasis fan any other way? Take, for example, “Wonderwall”. I don’t even know what a ‘wonderwall’ is. And then there’s the line: “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now,“ which I think is supposed to be a compliment but is actually insulting. And yet… and yet…after all these years, it still stops me dead to hear the opening guitar, or to hear the lines, “There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how/ ‘Cause maybe you’re gonna be the one that saves me.” The rest of it doesn’t matter. I can turn my critical faculties off and enjoy a blissful few minutes of a song, of a spirit, that means a lot to me.
It’s almost as if the more clever the lyrics, the more removed I become from the emotion of the music itself, and therefore, the song’s impact on me becomes less direct. This is a generalization, of course. It’s not as though I hate bands with great lyrics. I can’t imagine my musical life without The Beatles or Tom Waits, to name just two examples. But I dislike how words can sometimes divorce me from the spirit of a song and make music a more intellectual experience than an emotional one.
Words can just be so inadequate. Another awesome TBA performance this year, Carl Hancock Rux’s Mycenaean, emphasized the way in which modern society tries to reduce us and the wealth of our experiences to a label or soundbite. (Consider, for example, the assumptions of belief and character that you may make upon learning of another’s political persuasion.) Labels are absolute and don’t allow for degrees of thought. Labels, like rules, are destined to be broken.
This year I read Dr. George Sheehan’s Running and Being, a 1978 book loaned to me by my best friend, a runner and cyclist who thought I’d enjoy it because of how much I love to walk. Sheehan gets to the heart of the problem of labeling when he describes himself attending an “encounter group”:
In the first exercise, the person next to me asked again and again, “Who are you?” When I answered successively with the conventional identifications and relationships, my neightbor kept repeating, “Thank you, but who are you?”
Eventually, you get down to basics that have nothing to do with flags or slogans, political campaigns or fund-raising dinners, where you come from or what you do for a living.
Such exercises do not give solutions. But they do show how shallow and trivial most of our allegiances are.
Sheehan later adds, “Sport does not care whether you are a Democrat or Republican, capitalist or Communist. Sport goes to the essence…. The answer to “Thank you, but who are you?” is available to any athlete who has found his sport.”
And that, in a sense, is what I’m really thinking about now when I think about an afterlife – that my ideal existence, my idea of heaven, would be somewhere I could express myself through motion or music, a place where my spirit and movement were one and uncomplicated by all the thought and words that intervene and keep me from having direct experiences.
It isn’t that I want to be an animal exactly (which is what life without thought and language would ultimately amount to), but I want to capture and sustain those few moments when body and mind are one. Once again, Dr. Sheehan describes it best, after quoting Kierkegaard as saying ideas were his only joy:
Such people, according to Ortega… lead an abstract life… and rarely throw a morsel of authentic live meat to the sharp-pointed teeth of their intellect.
The way out of that abstract existence is to go out. If not to other people, at least to the body. And so they became great walkers, outdoor people….
“First be a good animal”, said Emerson. And in running I am that animal, the best animal I can be. Doing what I am built to do. Moving with the grace and rhythm and certainty that I seem to have possessed from all time.
And there I find joy. Kierkegaard was mistaken in that. There is no joy in ideas. Joy comes at the peak of an experience and then always as a surprise. I cannot have joy on demand. At best, I go where I have felt it before… moving at a pace I could hold forever and my mind running free. So that I am in this alternation of effort and relaxation, of systole and diastole. And then I have that fusion where it is all play and I am capable of anything.
It’s that mental and physical fusion that is, ultimately, exactly what I want in my afterlife. But for now, I’ll have to keep working with the tools I have, and the language I already know, to articulate myself as best I can.