What does it mean to be “near death”? Is it coming within inches of being T-boned by an out of control tractor trailer, or is it when your core temperature drops multiple degrees after a particularly cold and ill-fated bike ride? Sitting in bed at old age, knowing that you’re closer to cellular degeneration than you were when you were young? Sustaining a violent blow to the head, the chaos and crunching of plastic, glass, metal, concrete, again, again, silence?
We have many ways of framing the near-death experience, be it physical or temporal proximity, corporeal or psychological trauma. There is no agreed-upon definition for what qualifies as near death. In a way, we are all near death, one lightning bolt or missed red light away from oblivion. When we wake up wishing we hadn’t, turning the lights out for good sounds like a lot of work and strangely unguaranteed. People survive point blank shots to the head, cyanide poisoning, even jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet when we are at the height of living, sometimes death sneaks up quickly. People don’t survive slipping on a bar of soap in the shower, getting hit in the head by a stray golf ball, going for a hike and not realizing how hot it was going to be.
There is an oppressive taboo surrounding death that prevents us from addressing its randomness and finality. I am faced with it often, from the way my brain frequently feels half-dead even after two coffees to the many maimed animals I swerve around as I bike along the roads that dissect our country. Looking at the tangled mass of fur and entrails, feathers and busted fog lights. The way I abhor hunting but have watched more hunting videos than most carnivores, attempting to come to terms with what is happening out there. Growing up in Texas, it is part of the culture. Duck hunting at four AM, church at eleven. Blast the birds to smithereens, then get gussied up and lean into the frail idea that the animal kingdom is our dominion but our souls are eternal. There’s a line far thinner than barbed wire that separates our sense of control from the pleading surrender to cosmic chaos.
Death is arbitrary and matter-of-fact. The half-written book in my computer won’t become a posthumous masterpiece; nobody knows my ridiculously dumb password. They wouldn’t find pages scattered everywhere, no haunting catalogue of photo prints that take on further meaning at a later date. It is all locked in the digital realm, just as I am locked in the purgatory of diaspora—not for a particular place, but the vague longing for a sense of home. It is this unmet longing that motivates us, but unless we can blink and squint through the bullshit, we will simply get swept away in it.
If I took the distant gaze of the armadillo that was run over with its eyes open seriously, I wouldn’t waste so many days chasing vague fitness goals and saving every possible penny for some future day when things will be clearer. I would spend my time writing everything that needs to be said, thoughtfully but with urgency. For the tiny percentage of the population that actually reads, we have a secret language in books, a place where quiet rooms with good lighting are turned into time machines, teleportation portals into other dimensions, eternal access to fleeting moments. I fancy myself belonging to this realm, but I have suckled from the salary world and flirted with the idea of actually having a mailing address that matches my driver’s license. These are not the only measures of success, but they are convenient and easy in a life where I only wake up feeling “good” maybe one out of every ten days. It’s easier to build a house of cards on a stable foundation than it is when everything is always moving.
Maybe if I would slow down and put these ideas into well-developed characters with a page-turning plot I would have something marketable. Most days the truth feels too urgent and complicated to assign protagonists and antagonists. Not to mention how much time it would take to do well. Time is money, and where does the money come from? Given that the average American spends .28 hours reading per day, the hope of ever having much audience attention is dim enough as it is.
Writing is most effective when you write everything thinking it is the last chance you’ll have to convey it. That there’s no need to posture what you’re saying because you know who will read it, or that you’ll have to face your audience. We spend most all of our days calculating the right things to say and how much to reveal, and we write knowing that we will have to share a cubicle or a dinner table with our audience. After a near-death experience, there’s usually a period of euphoria, candor, gratitude—we swear we won’t ever take anything for granted again. Of course everything is in sharper focus with a dump of adrenal hormones, for a limited time we can run on appreciation and even make decisions that favor the present over the future, because we were so close to not having a future at all. Then time marches on and erodes the fresh jagged edges of perspective. It dulls our senses and demands conformity. Requires careful consideration of the future, compromises of the self for the sake of others.
The near death experience may be the moment before the fall is halted by the ground, it may be the first tumble when everything is pain and ringing noises and a flash of white light. I can’t believe this is happening to me. Or it may be what happens months, or even years, later. It has nothing to do with injuries or lightning strikes or natural gas leaks. The more comfortable we get and the further from our dreams we stray, the nearer to death we truly become.