written by Danáe Ashley
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Ouch. James does not pull punches in reminding us how inconsequential and fleeting our lives are. In our modern times, we believe we have a lot more control of the various aspects of our lives than we actually do. Science and medicine can do a lot, but they cannot stop hurricanes or wildfires or tsunamis or earthquakes—or even some viruses. Being a careful driver cannot stop another person from swerving into your lane and hitting you head on. The only constants in life that are not human made (taxes) are change and death, and our Western culture does neither of those things well.
I am writing this from a spot in my early autumn garden where the summer blooms are spent and have gone to seed or died back. The bees and hummingbird couple are enjoying the purple salvia, red penstemon, a variety of coneflowers, hyssop, chrysanthemums, asters, and huge sunflowers that volunteered themselves from last year’s crop. The hydrangeas are changing color even as the daphne blooms again. There has been a shift in the air. It is warm with a cool undercurrent instead of the opposite, as in spring. Here in the Seattle area, the daylight is no longer retreating from the landscape late into the evening, but is laying itself to rest earlier each day. Changes are happening, not all at once, but quietly in a rhythm that the earth keeps well.
This garden is dedicated to death. It is a memorial garden in honor of our beloved dog, Alvie Anne, who died on February 29, 2020, the week before the pandemic washed over our world like a tsunami leaving loss, fear, and change in its wake. During the intervening months, we created this garden as a place of gathering, a place of life in the midst of death. Friends donated plants in honor of their animal companions and, in this strange way of the pandemic, attended Alvie’s memorial there – both in person (outdoors and physically distanced) and via Zoom. Holding the thresholds of death and life in one time and one place that day, we dedicated the garden and also offered a welcoming ritual for our rescue pit bull, Sophie Grace.
Now, here I sit, 18 months later, living through a full cycle and a half of this garden and a continued global pandemic, in awe of what has also lived and even thrived in these liminal times. Tending to death gives us a deeper appreciation of life. The way that our culture has sanitized death has not done us many favors. We need to be reminded, as James says, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” This perspective aids us in living the days we do have to the fullest and in reliance on God, knowing that it could leave us subtly, like the seasons, or vanish in a moment.
So, what is your life? How has death informed the way are you living fully today?
The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.