Surrounded by Life

I was watching a documentary about a forest in Japan that has become a hauntingly popular destination for suicides. The filmmakers followed a geologist who, because of his work monitoring the volcanic rumblings of nearby Mt. Fuji, wound up a kind of forest suicide ranger, both uncovering the bodies of those who succeeded in killing themselves, and counseling those strangers camped far off the trails who remained uncertain which path they would follow, so to speak.

The geologist explained that most people who come to the forest hang themselves, making the tall, old growth trees unwitting accomplices in the final act. To accentuate this point, the filmmakers paused to pan slowly up a tree from roots to branches. The pan was accompanied by an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The soundtrack was so spooky that I was expecting the camera to find a dangling, lifeless body amid the branches.

Only it didn’t. It was just a tree, and a beautiful one at that. For a moment during that slow, creepy shot, I imagined that tree without a soundtrack. That’s the artist’s hand, I thought. We decide what everything means. The tree means nothing by itself, but pan slowly with some cellos droning in a minor key, and you have a monster.

I believe the documentary was intended to be sort of real life horror movie, only it fell short of this for me because of its lead character. The geologist was a reassuring guide through this forest of death. He talked about how important it was for people to spend time with one another, to find meaning in relationships. Somehow, his daily trips through the world of suicide had only connected him further to the life in which he was surrounded in that quiet, beautiful forest.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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The Only Question

In this month’s issue we feature an interview with and an article by Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist and author of the debut memoir In Her Wake. When Nancy was four, her mother committed suicide, an event that shaped much of her adult life, moving her toward psychiatry and eventually to write this memoir.

There seems to be a long connection between writing and suicide, both in portraying it (Quentin in The Sound and the Fury) and doing the very deed (Hemingway, Virginia Wolf, and that patron saint of the underappreciated, John Kennedy Toole). In fact, Rappaport’s mother, a prominent Boston socialite and political activist in the 50’s and 60’s, was secretly writing an autobiographical novel that in some ways presaged her suicide. Finally, my father once told me that he believed my mother’s number one fear for me was that she would come home one day to find me hanging by a rope. He was wrong about my mother’s fear, though it’s true I could have been peppier when I was a teenager.

I have to admit, however, that the idea of suicide always had a certain romance to me when I was younger. Viewed from a certain position, life seemed undeserving of the effort required to negotiate its endless challenges. For what? That’s the fiendishly unanswerable question the quiet voice of suicide will smugly ask. For what?

It’s the question that is the problem, not the answer you cannot provide. As if all of life is cause and effect; as if life itself were a contractual agreement. As soon as I look to add up my winnings, I find my hands are empty. I heard Richard Dawkins – he of The God Delusion – snap back at an interviewer once, “Why do you think life should have meaning?” If meaning is a solution, if meaning is a victory, if meaning is a completed puzzle, then indeed life has none.

The questions we ask either move us forward or freeze us in our boots. Ask the wrong question, ask, “For what?” and it is like asking a calculator to find the square root of a tangerine. The question presupposes that life can be tallied, which it cannot be. There is nothing to tally. There is just you and your very next choice, the next word your write, the next thought you think. The only question worth answering, then, the only question you ever can answer, the only question that invites life into your veins through curiosity and desire is, “What’s next?”

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