What the Maya Got Right

So I guess the Maya were wrong. My floor did not collapse into a boiling pit of lava this morning. Equally disappointing, those hellacious world-ending fireballs raining from the sky turned out to be, upon closer inspection, nothing more than innocent snowflakes. Even though the Mayans’ doomsday prophecy has proven just as absurd as all the others, I think it serves a purpose. When was the last time you thoughtfully spoke with another about death? Since we were all supposed to become heaps of ash today, what substantive steps did you take to mend broken relationships or at least internally prepare for what could be your mind’s last cognition? Nothing? Yeah, me neither. In our society it is much more acceptable to talk about the end of a TV program than the end of a life. Grief is privatized, compartmentalized, and Hallmarkized. Compare our treatment of death with the conspicuous funeral pyres and public grief rituals of many civilizations, ancient and modern. Silence can make a hard thing even harder. Even our temporary survival does not erase the fact that…

I am going to die. So are you. As are my dog, the bamboo plant sitting on my desk, the spider spinning a web in the corner of my closet, the lowly paramecium gliding across the food stain on my kitchen countertop, and the majestic oak I can just barely see outside my window, its snow-dusted branches stretching impossibly high towards the heavens and – dare it – towards immortality. Beauty and size and complexity serve only as yellow lights and speed bumps on the street towards a single destination, where U-turns are illegal. The song stops playing, the music fading or ceasing instantly to ungoverned silence, shoulders sagging, and all other metaphors I can think of become irrelevant or all too relevant – all this true no matter what show continues.

When faced with the senseless reality, how to pull yourself from the reverie that impends at the corner of your eye? As if he has already whisked you away to his castle under the hill – all sterility and necessity and empty of surprise. If going beyond the veil is natural and peaceful, why does it rustle so loudly? I don’t know, and neither does he.

And yet – the only thing as certain as death is life. It fills in the gap that allows us to examine why and how it could ever end in the first place. And the last place. Again, Isaiah is wrong – life is naught without death and death naught without life. There can be no dent without an object to be dented. Fleeting and fleeing, like a gossamer of silk dancing a capricious ballet upon the nearest stage of wind, it holds us in wonder for its beauty and – crucially – its transience. Precious for its rarity, its temperance the enemy.

Grounded herein, real work may begin.

So as we laugh at the Mayan calendar (or our interpretation of it), we should take notice. Their gifts to modernity are perhaps more complex than imposing pyramids and maize. Don’t be afraid to contemplate the end a little bit, for it is the only way to construct a rewarding path to get there. Extend your hand and bend your ear. Heighten each moment. You just might find, as I have, all the more reason to celebrate — that when our summons comes we will have made more merit than malice.


10 thoughts on “What the Maya Got Right

  1. Beautiful thoughts expressed in beautiful words. Thank you for writing again, it’s a gift you give the world. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  2. Dear Jay, I would never have used the word “lazy” to describe you in any way during high school, and obviously you have continued your energetic ways over the last year and a half. It sounds as though Duke has been a terrific choice from all standpoints, and the first semester freshman year is usually the worst of the 4 years ahead. Mrs. Keyes, Cathedral and I all miss you, but know how important it has been for you to move ahead with your life. Your beautiful prose is a humbling reminder to this old teacher that with some students you can share your knowledge, but you probably won’t teach them any skills they don’t already have.

    Your years at CHS were incredibly special for me, and I have full confidence that you will fufill my prediction that you will find a way to make life better on this planet for all of us. And, speaking of making life better, as I mulled over your piece on death, I once again realized the veritas of that cliched old latin phrase, Carpe Diem. Jon and I have been lucky to share so many wonderful years, but longevity doesn’t lessen a fear of loss. Too many of my friends mask their fear of mortality by becoming overly concerned with the meaningless irritations of daily life. I never want my world to become that small, so I am going to xerox your blogs and refer to them when when I am tempted to become a querolous senior.

    Please keep your blogs going as the spirit moves you, and know, like everyone your life has touched, I think about you daily and delight in the good things I hear. We are leaving for Florida on December 26th and returning on January 2nd. I would really like to see you before you return to school, but life is short, time moves on, and sometimes you can’t do it all. So enough of the hackneyed phrases that describe our busy lives, and thank you for the Christmas gift.

    My best wishes for 2013, Very Fondly, Judy Birge

  3. Welcome home, Jay. And you thought that two blog entries in one week were too many?? I’d like to read two a day, so keep writing! Anytime I can read exquisite writing, I seek it out. Your gifts are astounding. Peace and blessings. Godspeed. Tracy Luke

  4. “So live, that when thy summons comes to join
    The innumerable caravan which moves
    To that mysterious realm where each shall take
    His chamber in the silent halls of death,
    Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
    Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
    By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
    Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
    About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

  5. Constructing a rewarding path to get there….interesting contrast between the “there” of death and the process path…with the word constructing, you remind us that we are architects along the way.

  6. This is beautiful, Jay. I am late to the table, but so glad to read these powerful reflections. Hope semester two is off to a great start.

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