Why death makes me smile

We are in Sagada. I am sitting at a desk in a room at my friend Villia’s house, staring out the window at Echo Valley shimmering in the morning light. I had woken up much earlier, and saw that the house was enveloped by fog. It felt like we were on a ship, floating in the blinding whiteness. I woke Kidlat so he could take a look at this amazing sight, and went back to sleep.

Yesterday afternoon, the sound of gentle and constantly falling rain lulled me into a deep sleep despite consuming two strong cappuccinos after lunch. I had wanted to write even then but the rain had other plans. The sound of the constant fall of rain is like a meditation.

Before writing, I did some yoga asanas, and I ended the cycle with savasana or Dead Man’s Pose. It is my favorite pose. As I try to flatten out my body like a white, blank sheet of paper upon the floor, I mentally go through my body, telling each part to relax, to let go. Usually, my right side is tense—shoulder, lower back, lower abdomen, hip. So I go through a visualization that shows me I am beyond dead:

I am a skeleton, and a scientist or archaeologist is putting me together, reconstructing me piece by piece on a long rectangular table. Bone by bone, he sets me down. I feel each dry, desiccated bone with my mind and place it down upon the flat surface. 

And I feel my muscles begin to relax. There is an unhooking of thought to something, an idea, and I sense a release. I feel my hollow skull and I start to smile. I smile because I am dead. I am long dead, 1,000 years at least. I smile because this scientist has no idea what I am about. Sure, he can surmise my station in life, age, gender, cause of death, general state of health, etc., but he does not know how or whom I have loved, the words I have written, the mountains I’ve walked, the fears I have named and laid to rest. He won’t really know me. And that is perfect. Because dead me is lying on a yoga mat, grinning, and I am reminded once again what my life is about.

I hear the valley’s birds singing in the trees, the faraway gurgling and rushing sound of a stream or river. I am reminded of the Chauvet caves, so beautifully documented by Werner Herzog in his 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I think of that artist 32,000 years ago dipping his hand into red dye and marking an entire vertical wall of rock deep inside the cave with his handprints. His little finger is crooked, and this makes you feel like you know him, makes you imagine that maybe he is the kooky maverick of his tribe. Or perhaps he is a recognized dreamer and they indulge him the torches needed to throw light into the cave’s profound darkness so that he can paint the animals that his people cherish. Even today, you see how lovingly he painted them, so carefully portrayed their beauty with dye and soot, the curve and shadow of rock animating them into being. It makes me cry to think about this artist, the wall full of his handprints from 32,000 years ago. I want to say to him, “I don’t know you but I feel the essence of you from these flickering images. You are still alive. Long turned to bone and dust, your spirit still lives!”

One French scientist involved in the ongoing research on the Chauvet caves recounted the story of an aboriginal guide taking a white man, a tourist maybe, to one of these painted caves in Australia. The aborigine was dismayed to find the ancient paintings in disrepair and decay, and so he took it upon himself to fix them. As he painted on the fading lines, the white man asked him, “Why are you painting?” The aborigine replied, “I am not painting. It is the hand of Spirit that paints.”

“Art is infection,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote. And I believe that the infection between artwork and audience takes place when the artist writes, paints, sculpts, sings or dances something from his or her true self, something one loves and cares about deeply and with all of one’s being. No infection, no art, said Tolstoy, angering many of the artists who read—and feared—his words. But I think he had something there.

Being in Villia’s house in Sagada, overlooking Echo Valley, does something to me. The green expanse of forest before me opens me up to expansive thoughts, to expansiveness. I am dead, and my death makes me smile. And it reminds me what is left of me. The essence of who I am. (This essay first appeared in my blog, peopleihavebeen.blogspot.com. It will be included in my anthology of essays, to be published before the year’s end.)