Here, BJ Miller talks about a lot of things, but I’ll focus on what he calls the three “design cues” of palliative care.
- Differentiate between being dead and dying.
- Offer comfort via the senses.
- Pursue well-being.
I think of the senses right now.
My greatest joys — our greatest joys — come from our sensory experiences in this life. Music, sex, good food, springtime scents, beautiful paintings… and so on. These things keep us in the present moment, with no past or future encroachment. I find that I am wholly myself — entirely within my own being — when I’m listening to bands that I love, spending time as closely as possible with a woman I deeply want and care for, cooking and eating the flavors that I’ve cultivated on my tongue, walking through a park in late April, taking in an entrancing work of art… and so on.
And so while I’m not thinking daily about the ramifications of dying vs. death — as BJ Miller might — I think maybe I should do so more often. Or perhaps I should relish the mindfulness of sensory recognition in ways I haven’t previously. Our senses are active all the time, and they create the second-by-second nature of being a human tethered to linear time. Let’s tune in.
Yes: I feel alive most immediately during sex or during a vivid concert or during a brisk run around the loop at Edgewater, for instance, but I suppose the choice to engage with this thread through life is always there, even when I’m like balancing my budget for the week or something (feel the pen on paper, listen to the scratchings of my money being subtracted from itself, etc.). I think I know this, but I’ve passively chosen to forget it too often.
Feeling more alive than before, I return to the final three minutes of Miller’s talk and consider the question at hand.
“We need to lift our sights — to set our sights on well-being,” Miller says. (He’s talking about health care, but…) “Consider every major compulsory effort it takes to be human. The need for food has birthed cuisine. The need for shelter has given rise to architecture. The need for cover, fashion. And for being subjected to the clock, well, we invented music.”
(I’ll note briefly that the whole talk is so nice. Miller’s got a great oratorical sense about him, and, hey, the conscious development of sentence structure and rhetoric might very well be another facet of the sensory well-being he’s talking about in the first place.)
And but I’ll add here that music is the sweetest of the sensory bastions, because it covers them all: the lilting fragrance of lilac, the dulcet richness of a fresh apple, the ecstasy of a lover’s voice (and the voice of her ecstasy in turn), the playful rhythms of intertwined fingers, and, naturally, the I-IV-V progression of an old blues standard.
This is all stuff — the stuff of life — that I do know, however. Maybe it’s not that I’m not engaging with the earnest beneficence of this life, but rather than I don’t associate with it in relation to my own mortality.
“So,” Miller continues from where we last left off, “what might we create with this fact?”
There’s BJ Miller for you. Hell of a speaker. Here’s Eric Sandy: A life well lived is a crescendo across decades, a work of art that brings the body o’er torrents of adventure — into and out of the tides of success, love, health, sanity — and rises wildly toward the great unknown. We converge as one.
If you’ve split a bowl with me in the past few years, I’ve likely regaled you with a Hunter S. Thompson quote. This is something I do. Like most of my heroes he is dead, so he’s got one up on all of us still trying to figure this shit out. He said this: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: ‘Wow! What a ride!'”
(I mentioned this earlier tonight, but I think it’s something I want to remind myself of now. [It’s 2:11 a.m., tequila neat on the coffee table, a lone ginger candle flickering comfortingly in the corner.] Heroes set examples for the wild-eyed and youthful. They are important, but I realize now that I haven’t encountered a hero in goddamned years. My dad and Tom Robbins remain my only living heroes in this life. Somehow, this scares me, and yet somehow it’s a peaceful recognition. Everyone I’ve come to see as heroic — as a grand model for how I should live my life — is a dead writer, save for those two. Most of them killed themselves, even as they wrote about the sensory constructions of life. [I think, as I’ve grown up, I’ve replaced the amassing of “heroes” with friends who do amazing things. I look up to those who skid in broadside at all hours of the day, who grab the reins and command the direction of their own lives. I wouldn’t call them heroes, per se, but friends, and I love them. Those are the examples by which I intend to live. “This above all, to thine own self be true,” someone once said.])
We converge as one.
“We can’t solve for death…meanwhile, we can design toward it,” Miller says.
I’m sitting now in a room lit by a newly and warmly reclaimed strand of Christmas lights and ensconced by the constant ebb and flow of the past and the future. I am happy. The lights are wonderful, and mean more to me right now than they probably should, but there’s a twinkling sense of the present that flows outward from each green and blue and red and and orange bulb, and I can’t help but savor the immediacy of everything — this life through which I’m traveling at warp-speed — and the honed sense that, until I die, this ride will always be joyous and good.