I don’t know if the concept of what I perceive as me will exist after I die. That part of me may end when my brain ceases to function, when there is no more living body to contain my consciousness. Or maybe I will continue in some less substantial form, but I wonder how long a sense of self will last without a body to interact with the world. In more fantastical moments I imagine that we, and our identities, fade slowly into some collective gathering of thought, without individual distinctions or names. Occasionally bumping into the world of the living, giving rise to stories of ghosts and spirits, or those fleeting moments when we know we have touched something greater than our individual selves but struggle to name it.
Most days I am okay with the ambiguity of not knowing. I figure I will either have an amazing new experience or my sense of self will pop out of existence when my body dies and there will be no consciousness to perceive the loss of this. Knowing that this life may be the only time I walk this world keeps me present, it lessens the pressure to be perfect because who really gets it right the first, and possibly only, time?
It is the part of me that will for sure be left behind, my body, that gives me a sense of continuity. It is through my body that I am connected to the past and to the future.
When I think about what will happen after my death, I imagine my body buried deep in the soil, or perhaps my ashes scattered across some bit of earth I loved, slowly decomposing…composting…until, after a time, there is no difference between what was me and what is soil.
That decomposed me will be dug through by earthworms that move infinitesimally small portions of me a few inches deeper into the earth. It will be eaten by insects and digested in the guts of bacteria. Fungus. Ants. Water. Freezing, thawing, freezing again. Breaking down into my base elements. This happens to all living things.
Maybe some particle of me will be pulled up by the root of a tree, transforming into energy, leaf, bark, berry, and root.
This is where I find my hope.
When I look out my window to the tree that rises from a three-foot-wide strip of soil between street and sidewalk, I think of all the other living creatures that are a part of that tree. How many bits of broken down, composted beings exist beneath its bark? How many generations of us are in those leaves? How many in the white flowers that bloom on its branches in the spring? How many in the berries that plump and ripen each fall?
A squirrel may eat a berry from the tree, taking in a few particles of my ancestors into its squirrel belly. It will live out its life, raise its young, grow old and die – or it too may by eaten by a hawk, moving the process of transformation along more quickly. It either case it too will be bodily broken down by time, scavengers, and weather. The tree too will eventually die and take its place in this cycle.
With each meal we eat our ancestors. We wear them on our bodies. We burn them for fuel. We plant seeds in them. We grow the next generation with what the Earth and they provide us. The trees, the flowers, the grass, the sea, the cotton t-shirt I’m wearing, my skin, my cat, parts of this computer, are our ancestors. And in time they will become the future generations that live out their lives here.
When I turn my gaze again to that same tree I see my ancestors, and I see all the generations to come. And I am reminded that I am here only briefly. I am not the owner of this place, I’ve no more right to it than the bee, or the flower, or the squirrel. It doesn’t belong to me or you, but to the future.
When I turn my gaze to my own hand I see the past that created me, and the future that my body will be come. And I am reminded that I only have right now, the very brief window of time that is my existence, to help create a world where all of the other beings I walk this Earth with, and all that are to come, are able to live out their lives in safety and peace. I only have right now to make choices that will help to ensure that there is enough Earth left to support the generations to come.