Letter From the Editor
"You are no more significant or enduring than a lizard or a potato."
An issue on the theme of mortality was inevitable. Much of my days, for two semesters worth of the year, are steeped in reflecting on and lecturing about my own and others’ mortality. You see, I have the privilege of teaching the course “Psychology of Death & Dying” at a local college. Though it’s only a few months of time that we gather, it’s a time of intense scientific, philosophical, emotional, and personal reflection. My students and I put it on the table. We put it ALL on the table. Our beliefs, Our fears. Our very (very!) personal experiences. I tell my students on the first day we gather that, to get the most of the class, they have to trust me. And they have to trust each other, as well. It’s a huge ask, of course, one that the Math Department or Physics classes (I’d imagine) don’t include as a caveat on their syllabus. But … BUT!... perhaps the English classes do? Particularly the creative writing ones. Because, I was thinking, doesn’t sharing your writing require so much of the same? Vulnerability. Trust. Arguments over differences of styles / beliefs? But that willingness to put it all out there reaps the greatest benefits. The learning comes from the sharing.
Forgive me. I’m meandering here with my thoughts. This happens when I turn philosophical about the nature of life and its finiteness. Let me ground myself a bit here, placing myself firmly in front of my classroom . . .
If you were in my class, the first assignment you would receive is called “The Personification of Death”. The task is this (based on the work of noted thanatologist Robert Kastenbaum): “Imagine. You are sitting in your living room, simply relaxing, when Death walks in the door. Death, that is, as a personified form. What does Death in this bodied form look like? Reflect on it. Picture every detail. And then? Then DRAW it.” (Take a pause here and think of yours? Before reading any further, close your eyes and imagine it yourself. Death approaching you as a personified form. Maybe draw it and send it to me?) It seems silly, doesn’t it? Starting off a semester with sketching and coloring. Childish, even. And yet, see the variety of responses that come in -- male or female? young or old? scary or peaceful? -- and, look even deeper, still. See how those personifications reflect our own emotions about death. Scattered throughout the pages here, enjoy some of the actual returns from my students over a decade’s span.
And now I’ll direct your attention back to the quote at the top of this letter. These hard-hitting, truthful words (that our ego works overtime to protect us from) were formulated by the most beautiful mind in all of psychology, Terror Management Theory founder, Sheldon Solomon. Consider: we are, in fact, no better off than a lizard or a potato, in that we will come to the same ends as both. We will, just like them, die. The difference, however, is that we are AWARE of it. We, with that extra mass of cerebral cortex that evolved over our limbic system, know and can reflect on the understanding that this -- all of this around us -- will come to end. Just as we will, as well.
Now, I can geek out for pages and pages (and pages!) about Terror Management Theory and the implications of all of this AWARENESS of ours, but let me bring it back full circle to what I tell my class: Put it on the table! Think about these things. TALK about these things with others. Shut down the taboos that surround the topics of death and dying and share openly your beliefs, your emotions, your experiences. Make conscious the reality of death and, rather than let it defeat you, let it INVIGORATE you, let it DRIVE you.
Just as the writers and artists of the following pages have done.
It’s my hope that reading this special issue will not just be enjoyable -- as you experience other literary and art works -- but that it will encourage you to become aware of the thoughts in your own mind and let them out -- be it through conversation or on your own pages. It’s important. I promise.
I’m hitting you hard right off the bat with Shannon Frost Greenstein, a most extraordinary role model for taking the ache of loss and creating from it, even building from it. Stephen Kingsnorth, a writer whom I feel, issue after issue, astounded and humbled to be privileged to publish, wrote a poem of just seven lines for this one that stopped me completely for days. I’m not even kidding. It’s sitting with me, a silent but heavy companion as I write this even now. And truth be told, each of the works selected for these pages were the ones that instinctively make me hold my heart as I read them. Or made me vocalize something -- a deep, deep sigh or a “holy hell!” reaction. My hand went to my chest at the very first line of Ellis Jamieson’s story and it stayed there long after -- maybe to make sure it was still beating after I had held my breath reading. Fred Zirm elicited a “HA!” so loud the people on an adjacent park bench smiled along. Bill Baynes closes these pages because he conjured for me someone I loved dearly and isn’t it nice to go out with the ones you love dearly?
Thank you to all who contributed. Thank you to you for journeying with us through these pages.