A brief meditation on death, writing and gratitude

20131024_091852A few weeks ago I talked about the general malaise I was feeling as I approached the end of my sabbatical.  While those feelings are still part of the equation, I realized the other day – as I had a leisurely breakfast one last time on the front porch – I also have profound feelings of gratitude.

I will be eternally grateful for the experiences I had on sabbatical, for long mornings and afternoons spent writing.  For the flexibility to have no plans.  For the space to be spontaneous and lazy.  For all the books I read and Netflix binges.  I’m grateful for the friendships I cultivated and maintained, especially the friends who wandered around cemeteries with me, who facilitated & enhanced research trips and who took the time to be interested in my writing and my life.  (And I’m especially thankful for my bar trivia team – Dinosaur Erotica/Lady Gardens 4eva!)

(What saddens me most about sabbatical ending is losing all that lovely time.  Think of all the amazing things I could think and do if I had even more time off!  Think of what we all could do if we had regular sabbaticals!)

I am required to turn in a sabbatical report to my institution by the end of September.  While I’ll talk about the rejuvenating aspects of this time away from work, as well as the progress I made on my official sabbatical project, what I really want to submit is this:

More than anything, sabbatical offered me time to contemplate my own mortality. As I approach midlife and live into the choices I made when I was younger, this time was essential. In numerous cemeteries, I read countless gravestones and wondered what happened in the space between every birth and death date.  I thought about the space between my own birth and death dates.  The question I’ll consider – at least until my next sabbatical – is, what do I want my life to look like before I die?

The nothingness of death terrifies me. The body ceases to function and consciousness dissolves. (Maybe there’s more to it but I’ve yet to see proof.)  This terror made me manic for months.  I spent a lot of time concocting wild plans to toss everything stable in my life aside, quit my job, jump into a freelance writing career – or simply run away. Why am I wasting my time doing [insert tedious task here], I thought, if I’m going to cease to exist someday?

These fears and plans eventually led me to a conversation with my husband (who deserves the most gratitude of all). The idea of nothingness after death doesn’t terrify him.  Whether there is nothingness or not, we can’t change it.  Why not accept it?  His groundedness created a small but profound shift in my thinking: acknowledging my own mortality – and using it to inform decisions and dreams – does not mean I need to be driven by the fear of death.  Above all, this is what I learned on sabbatical.

My life might look very different in a few years – there are certainly new paths I want to explore – but any vocational decision I make will be driven by careful, considered risk and discernment, not fear.  Someday death will happen.  I won’t accomplish everything I’ve ever wanted before I die, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe that recognition clears the way for me to focus on what I really want to do – write, read, love my family & friends, be open to new possibilities, be present and reflective, live mindfully and with loving-kindness.

Goodbye, sabbatical!  Hope to see you again soon.

2 thoughts on “A brief meditation on death, writing and gratitude

  1. Wow. Your sabbatical report is going to look a lot more profound than mine. Seriously, I am so happy that you got some time for contemplation. That’s a rare thing, and it sounds like you truly appreciated having that time. Well done, Ms. J, well done.

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