Tag Archives: death

The fragility of ability

August 7, 2014

“Don’t you ever get injured, ever get sick?” I ask. Anyone hale enough to field this question just looks at me, perplexed. “No,” they say, like the pizza place employee who walks every day for work, flyering, putting in far more miles than I do each week. “Never,” he told me. Or the endearing 77-year-old Florida man who has walked two miles a day, every day, for the past 13 years, 6,575 days in a row. Hurricanes and injuries give him no pause; even with a torn meniscus he went out, supporting himself with a cane.

Having spent most of this year with some part of one foot or the other injured, if not the bad knee, it’s tough to understand what it would be like to get around so easily, all the time. What kind of life conditions such a hardy constitution? Another one of those enviable bipeds is the novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami, who outlined a few suggestions in a 2008 piece for the New Yorker. At least doesn’t take his abilities for granted.

Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. This has made it possible for me to run on a daily basis for more than a quarter century now, competing in a number of races along the way. I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t once been sick. I’m not a great runner, but I’m a strong runner. That’s one of the very few gifts I can be proud of.

Unlike these fierce perambulists, the human condition sometimes demands that we forgo our ambitions and curiosities, that we get off our feet and rest. Walking is the simplest, most universally human activity; even still, its mild demands aren’t to be met by everyone all the time. What happens when we lose mobility? We take to chairs or beds, feeling trapped. We compound our suffering with bouts of cabin fever, perhaps sneaking excursions by car or bike. We wield canes or crutches. To be able to move around is to be free. Nature provides affirmation that not everything goes so smoothly, that justice is just a construct to hold up our ethics.

What’s more free than an animal, and what animal is more free than a bird? Our conviction is even preserved in idiom: free as a bird. Birds in general are auspicious symbols, portending liberation, fresh beginnings, opportunities, the arrival of important messages.

Throughout the spring and summer, the twittering of birds gives way to silence on some sidewalks and streets. The contrast between a living, flying bird and the unfortunate city birds downed by some bizarre turn of events is striking. Flattened by traffic, order loses dimension. Symmetry is destroyed; reinvented. A sad beauty haunts the remains of these creatures.

At this unnatural end is the loss of features that once made them unique, that gave them membership to a particular species. First there may be the identifiable — wings, beaks, feet, legs, organs, gore, guts, blood, flies, maggots. Color drains. Limb from limb they are torn. By whatever means the birds came to rest there, their hollow bones lose dimension, their feathers ruffle at odd angles until finally defeated by repetitive pummelling. Somehow the wispy forms of birds coalesce into dark spots, and the dark spots, no longer recognizable, must wear away to nothing.

Some say they’re a bad omen, but I’ve been observing the dead birds for years, transfixed by their shapes, their overwhelming numbers, the mysteries of their deaths. Grotesque and seemingly meaningless, even in death they hold onto something that fascinates wanderers, artists, children with sticks, and maybe ornithologists. Sad and comfortless as these apparitions are, the grounded flights give perspective — a final bird’s-eye view — on illness, injury, and feelings of stuckness and entrapment.

What follows is a slideshow sample of birds documented over the years.

A 100-mile conversation

September 17, 2013

As summer bleeds into fall, the note of death is already in the air among the fading leaves and crisp breezes.

Sometimes literally so:

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So many words to pin on such a fleeting instant. For scale, imagine the duration of a 100-mile conversation. What would you talk about all that while? It turns out that death is just the subject of a 100-mile conversation. Two gentlemen in funny yellow pants talking about death in British accents for a hundred miles — almost comic.

It is and it isn’t. The 100-Mile Conversation is a project organized by two artists, Nathan Burr and Louis Buckley, to use the landscape as a tool to shift perspectives on the difficulties of discussing death with openness and honesty (and, we hope, humor). “Understanding the true definition of landscape to be an inner emotional state that we project onto our surroundings,” said Nathan Burr, the walk was intended to overcome cultural and conceptual obstaces as well as the usual hills, roots, and rocks. The walk took place over several days, beginning in Winchester, moving along the South Downs Way National Trail, and ending in Beachy Head, a notorious and perhaps ironically-named hotspot for suicide jumps, where chalky cliffs project over the sea.

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Photo credit Nathan Burr

Death-talk enthusiast Clare Davies joined them for half of the walk. Other than walking and talking about death with anyone who had the temerity to come along, they occupied themselves camping, making little videos, and looking at lichen, which certainly seem less mortal than soft humanity. Their guests included Virginia Woolf’s biographer, psychologists, archeologists, musicans, a paranormal investigator, and of course more artists. Coming up on the end of it, Davies saw a table, and “as I got closer, blue and yellow balloons tied by strings to its legs, dancing, hysterical, in the wind.” As a Death Cafe host, she said,

“The purpose? To discuss suicide. Bringing the cake had been my idea. How apt, I’d thought, how crazy even, to celebrate the project’s end by drinking tea on a cliff edge; how right, somehow, to celebrate life with an abundance of cake at a beauty spot marred by the sadness of suicide jumpers.”

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Photo credit Clare Davies

Itineraries and transcriptions from conversations can be found on the project blog, along with other depressing but potentially enlightening words.

In Detroit, what would a 100-mile walk around issues of mortality look like? Quite different from the kinds of death that live in the lonely hills of England, or the infamous bridges of San Francisco. In a city, death is all over the streets, in the houses and apartments, piling up in hospitals and cemeteries. If we walked a mile for each homicide this year, where would we be? A 100-mile conversation starts to seem as short as life itself.