We break at times from our regular fare of murder ballads for songs that confront mortality in other ways. Today’s discussion is the next installment in our “Conversations with Death” series. Special thanks to David Travis for his pictures in the post.
Prelude: Agitated waters
All kinds of people advise me to live each day as if it is my last.
I wonder who does their laundry.
The other day, as I finished a conversation with my wife I said, “I’m going to go fold laundry and contemplate my mortality now.” That was a joke about laundry, and not about our conversation. If I don’t put on the radio when I fold laundry, I swear I can hear the march of death coming toward me. I don’t know how far away it is, but I hear it. The time taken by routine chores inspires resentment whenever I stop to think about it. I know this is not rational, or even justifiable. It’s not that I think anybody else should do these things for me. I just don’t like awakening to the existential angst they provoke.
In any event, I wouldn’t intentionally include folding laundry in my last day.
I don’t resent the time I devote to exercise, though. Among other activities, I’m a recently minted open water swimmer, which is part of what led me to today’s post. After the Fourth of July, I’ll make time in the early morning hours to swim a mile in Lake Michigan. That’s the time of year when the water temperature usually rises above 65° F. Below that mark, putting my face in the water is a real test. Below that, some physiological trigger for panic fires. Gasping ensues.
I lived by the lake for over two decades before I tried open water swimming there last year. As it happens, I was writing the “When I Go” post when I began. Vigorous morning exercise was essential to my exploring that musical “Conversation with Death,” for a couple different reasons. One reason was that I was taking cues from Dave Carter’s songwriting notes. He wrote, “On a shamanic journey, you get the rhythm in your body going. For me, this means I get on my bike and ride with the rhythm–fast.” The other reason, which I can’t fully make rational, was that Carter had died of a heart attack after a morning run. I wasn’t seeking that outcome, of course, but some inchoate link between vitality and mortality felt essential to me for getting inside that song. That feeling also sparked my desire to explore today’s “Conversation.”
Open water feels risky, in an elemental and fundamentally alluring way. I usually swim at the same time as a group of other regulars, but am in most relevant ways alone in the water. I’ve grown to see how swimming there offers a kind of wilderness, which is otherwise very far from my city life. The main draw for me is not the risk. Swimming is probably no riskier than a bike ride in the city, but the feelings during and after are quite different. A lot of that difference stems from being in an environment relatively unstructured by human hands.
David Hinton, in The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape describes the phenomenon of “contact” in the human encounter with nature. He relates an episode when Henry David Thoreau had such an experience in trying to find his way back after a failed attempt to ascend Maine’s Mt. Ktaadn [sic]. “Contact” is:
“…all question and all mystery—a moment in which the mind’s orienting certainties fail, even the certainty of self-identity, leaving one open to the experience of sheer immediacy. It is the experience of a mind perfectly emptied of all content, all the received explanations and assumptions about who we are and where we are, and so, a mind open therefore to these very wilds we inhabit day by day, however rarely we are aware of that existential level of immediacy.”
All this awaits me just a short drive from the Loop? Perhaps that’s a little overstated for my case. What Hinton describes is more immersive and intense than what I undergo. I’m on that continuum, though, especially if there’s a light chop or a slow roll to the water.
The surface waters of the lake are just now, in early fall, starting to get cool again. The closing of this season inspired this post on a look back on summer swimming, offered by the inimitable Loudon Wainwright III.
Lyrics. You can find more performances by Wainwright and others at the conclusion of the post.