We’re all leaving: death and the glory of life

"Cathedral" by Evan Sharboneau: sun streams through green and orange leaves toward a blue-purple forest floor, as tall, straight treetrunks converge at the top of the picture like a cathedral nave.

It’s near a week past Samhain, but I feel like it’s still haunting me. In the Catholic Church where I was raised, most holidays aren’t really a single day, but rather the high points of longer periods of preparation and continuance, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: I’m still in Samhain’s penumbra, or perhaps I might say I’m living through Samhaintide. Whatever I call it, I’m still strongly feeling the mantle of death and the dead on the world as we begin the journey into the dark half of the year.

I don’t mean, though, that I’m feeling depressed or mournful as such. Instead, I’m struggling to wrap my head around mortality. In many ways that’s the project of adulthood, of course, but with both friends and family confronting sickness and death, I’m feeling the difficulty more acutely than usual. As I told my husband last night, it’s much easier to glibly say that death is a part of life when you aren’t actively contemplating the deaths of people you know and care about. And so I’ve been fumbling to come to grips with my own sadness (and anger, and guilt, and bargaining, and all the other facets of grief) while also keeping sight of the terrible beauty of our world and its cycles.

As it so often does, music has thrown me a lifeline. Yesterday I woke up with the refrain of a song by Karine Polwart floating endlessly through my head: “We’re all leaving / even the ones who stay behind. / We’re all leaving / in our own time.” Although I love the song, and Polwart’s music in general — she’s cropped up on this blog before — I’d never much delved into this song’s lyrics. I’m glad it surfaced in my brain, and I give thanks to whatever force brought it there; contemplating “We’re All Leaving” has reminded me of my place in the world, and the ways that Death, the inevitable, can be brought into our sphere of acceptance.

“We’re All Leaving” was created as part of the Darwin Song Project, where artists from the UK and North American collaborated to create songs based on the life and work of Charles Darwin. Polwart’s song specifically meditates on the death of Darwin’s 10 year old daughter Annie. The song begins by gently acknowledging the inescapability of death:

There is thunder on the skyline
And it tears her breath away
Like the twilight steals the day

A father’s kind hand could not command her
To return to him once more
Like a soldier from the war

Here, it’s not a malevolent power or even bad luck that kills Annie, but a force of nature (a metaphorical one, the thunder standing in for sickness). Darwin can no more stay the hand of the thunder than he could stop the night from creeping in to cover the dark. Polwart then turns to consider Darwin’s life’s work, the theory of natural selection; he sees his daughter’s death reflected in the flowered April fields around him, where each bloom is shadowed by a non-bloom, a different genetic possibility that never came to be.

Each night surrenders to a morning
And beneath the April skies
He can hear an endless cry
On smiling fields there’s a battle raging
And for every bloom he knows
Another flower never grows

After each of these verses, Polwart breaks into the story with her chorus and morale: “We’re all leaving, / even the ones who stay behind; we’re all leaving in our own time.” After the second chorus, despite the beautiful fingerpicking and gentle vocals, the song begins to feel bleak: there is no life without death, grief is inescapable, and someday we survivors will die as well.

And Polwart recognizes this bleakness; the bridge begins, “And he has no Ark to bear him from this flood / Just a broken vessel wrought in flesh and blood.” Darwin is human, and only human — there is no transcendent saving power that will save him from his grieving. This is the first point in the song that hooks deep into my heart. One of the hardest transitions for me, in leaving Christianity, was abandoning the idea of a personal, atoning Savior on whom I could heap my sorrows and fears. I had to accept that, though there are powers greater than I am, and though I believe in a continuation of my self after my body dies, for now — on this earth — I am all that I am. Any strength or resilience I can muster has to come from my weak and imperfect self.

Or so it seems. But even while remaining fully imminent in the world, I must also recognize that I am never alone. Just as I cannot escape the reality of my mortality, I also can’t escape my enmeshment in a vast and magnificent world. Nor can Darwin in the song:

And though the riptides pull him under
He will not cease to wonder
At the beauty
The beauty
The beauty
The beauty

Polwart’s vocals rise in both pitch and strength, and the orchestration swells with insistent strumming and layered vocals; even in the spare performance I linked to above, you can hear a growing purposefulness, a defiance against grief and unknowingness before the line crests like a wave and falls back to quiet:

He takes her mother to the church door
And while she prays for what will come
He walks those woods alone

And there he builds his own cathedrals
And on every whirring wing
He can hear the whole world sing 

This is the last verse of the song, and is for me in many ways a credo. When I think of death, and I think of loss, I feel an aching for the church of my youth, and for an escape that I no longer feel access to. But Polwart’s Darwin is a role model. His walking away from the church of his daughter’s funeral is not a defeat or a flight: it is an exultation in the richness of the natural world. He does not shy from his grief, but he also does not shy from his understanding of the interconnectedness of the world. Here, in the woods, among the whirring of insects and birds, is a cathedral of life and glory.

We’re all leaving
Even the ones who stay behind
We’re all leaving
in our own time

I don’t kid myself that grief will become easier, or that I will somehow gracefully accept death and loss as I grow older. I will fight for life, for justice and the enrichment of our manifold existences. But I hope that I can also hold fast to an ungraspable truth: that death is the inevitable conclusion of life, and that its specter is always with us. We owe it to ourselves and to our dead to revel in what life we have, but also to come to grips with our finiteness. We’re all leaving, in our own time.


Header image: “Cathedral.” Flickr/Evan Sharboneau. CC BY-NC-ND.


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