Supposedly your body hair will grow for over a week after you die, so as I stood beside my uncle’s open casket, I wondered who was responsible for shaving him and why they had done such a bad job. It was evident that they had done it a few days ago, as one last 5 o’clock shadow was struggling to burst through, as if to say “I’m still here. I’m not dead yet. Don’t sink me beneath the dirt yet.”
But he’s not still there. The follicles just haven’t finished dying and when they do, their cry will be forgotten. They’ll be sunk beneath the ground clinging to cheeks which began decomposing a week ago.
Most people, standing next to the open casket of a beloved family member, would not take time to examine the facial hair growth post mortem, but I notice things like that. I notice that there are three shades on the face of my uncle: his signature goatee which is the longest shade, the places the funeral home missed in their shave, and then the places they hit which had already begun their slow, dying regrowth.
I notice things like this because I think about death more than anyone else I know. Perhaps I’m gifted in this area — or cursed, depending on how you look at it.
It may be OCD.
It may be a dark fascination with how time kills all things and nothing escapes the long, twisty fingers of atrophy.
It was there as a boy, standing beside the box where my uncle would sleep for the rest of my life, that it hit me: What I had to do. I began to craft an idea of how I could act out my obsession.
Whatever it is, most kids aren’t weighed down by this obsession with death and how all things slowly (or quickly) move in that direction.
I can’t remember when it began, but I began compulsively measuring everything. Perhaps measuring isn’t the right word. I began seeking out balance.
Everything created in the universe is held in tension between two extremes. Siddhartha called it the Middle Way, but it exists outside of Buddhism as well. Christianity attempts to balance everything between good and bad extremes: You can’t be too legalistic or too licentious.
I think that’s why God gave us two hands. If you wanted to, you could hold an ice cube in one hand and a match in the other and you act as the tension between. You have two eyes, so you can see beautiful things and tragic things and balance each other out. You have two ears so you can hear Beethoven as well as the screams of bodies caught in a house fire.
You have two hands so one can hold the hand of your lover while the other strikes the face of your brother.
It all has to balance out.
Dark and light.
Beauty and decay.
Life and death.
Nothing is more opposite than the last pair, yet how little thought we give them both! We don’t contemplate our own lives until we near death and once we die we can contemplate nothing again.
“Who can praise you from the grave?” asks the psalmist.
“The body responds well to metaphor,” a teacher told me once. I didn’t understand it until my uncle’s funeral as I stood there watching his beard grow back. Now I get it. Now I embrace the movement of my body as a piece of theater before God himself.
Eastern thought capitulates dark and light forces against one another, but coexisting in the yin-yang. This is too stark. There is no balance when everything is black and white. Where is the tension?
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is rife with tension. The land itself holds together the global east and the global west like a geographic belt buckle. So should we be surprised that out of this contested location emerged the greatest act of cosmic balance in history?
Berkeley said everything that exists, exists in the mind of God. If He were to stop thinking about it for one moment, the very structure of reality would fall apart.
But Berk, imagine if He were to speak! What would happen then?
We find out in the opening pages of the Bible: God speaks and rather than sounds emerging, galaxies do.
Now picture man.
Now picture war.
My hands can only reach so far apart. The tension my little body is able to produce is limited to my four-foot-seven frame. Imagine if I could extend into the sky and my limbs grew grotesquely long like a Dali painting. Then I could get some real tension going.
What hath God to do with man? The two are opposites like noon and night.
Let’s look once more to Jerusalem and ask the ancient city this question: How do you maintain such wondrous tension? How do you suspend such impossible balance?
Their answer: A carpenter from buttcrack nowhere Galilee. Get a load of this guy. Claiming to be God, yet killable as a man.
Talk about tension.
Plato would ask: How can the Being enter into the Becoming? How can the Form become a Shadow?
Jews would ask: How can the I AM wear skin? Whose eyes can see the face of God and live to see anything else?
This carpenter — now hanging like a bloody pulp from a tree outside the city — claimed to be able to handle the tension, but I guess his body couldn’t take it.
He’s trying to hold the tension of a busted world in His chest…a chest now splayed apart between two nail-bitten hands.
That night, after the funeral, I went into the forest behind my family’s house and cut down a tree. I worked away in our garage for weeks on end, working to make them perfect. No one understood but me, but that’s okay. They don’t have to.
Two days later, his body was still underground and probably had the postmortem stubble covering his cheeks. His follicles hadn’t given up hope, nor should they. In this case, they would be needed again.
Turns out this Jewish nobody from buttcrack nowhere could take the tension
between God and man,
between life and death.
Turns out He wasn’t very good at staying dead.
Today I’m getting better at tension. I’m getting better at holding it within my body and acting out the balance. It’s how I worship.
I pull my stilts out of the garage and pace down the street. The ones I made as a boy only lifted me a foot and a half above the ground.
Today I fly.
Today my limbs extend meters as I pace above the surface of the world. The ends of my stilts produce massive amounts of pressure, and here I am in the middle — the crux, the one who can take the tension.
One stilt is beauty, the other is time.
One stilt is pain, the other is glory.
And here I am, perched in the middle like a bird in a precarious nest, holding the tension in my body. It’s the only way I know how.
This is my dance; the large awkward strides and the magnificent feeling of force pressing into me from my eternal limbs.
One is life, the other death.