Death as a Yardstick

I had one of the most amazing runs of my life this morning. It started out normally but unfolded like a flower into an a event so breathtaking that I am almost without words to properly describe it.

Rainy season began in earnest while I was away in Oregon these past two weeks and there has been so much residual rain and water that I’ve had to alter my route. The first/last two – three kilometers is the same but this morning I altered my course to include a long piece of dirt road that I haven’t run in two or three years.

To reach this road you have to cross the highway. No big deal. The problem with this road lies a couple of kilometers further on where there are pastured animals that are predictably guarded and managed by dogs. In the past that was always my turn around point. I hate encounter with dogs who know their job, who don’t know me, and then quickly assess I am an intruder.

If you are unfortunate enough to get bit by a dog in Mexico – let alone savaged by one or more – the fault lies entirely with you. If you even managed to get the case before a judge – which would be highly unlikely – the ruling would undoubtedly be that you were in a place you shouldn’t have been.

So this morning I was a kilometer or so up this piece of road, enjoying the run because the road was soft and dry, and a yellow pickup truck pulled up beside me and stopped.

I stopped, introductions were made, and I inquired about the dog situation further up the road. The guy said there was nothing to worry about but then told me to jump in and we proceeded up the road where we stopped at each animal enclave so he could introduce me to every animal owner and all of their dogs.

Imagine that. We stopped four times, got out of his pickup and I shook hands with the ranchers and let their dogs sniff my hand.

How is that for hospitality? This man took a half-hour out of his day to drive me most of the way to the southeast edge of Lake Chapala to do nothing more than to ease my mind.

I was stunned. I was almost in tears as I finished up my run reflecting on yet another example of the gracious hospitality of the people who live in this absolutely unforgiving environment.

That’s the preamble – here’s the rest of the story.

I think about my death three times a day. First, when I wake up in the morning and gratefully realize that I am not just miraculously alive to see another day but that I am also fit enough to still run. Second, every morning I read the obits online over coffee from my hometown newspaper to see who if any of my childhood friends have passed. (*I’ll have more to say about this at the end).

Last, I think about my death every morning I take a run, wondering if this is going to be the day some teenage narco-assassin does a drive-by and shoots me into the canal. If I were going to kill me, the backroads, on the canal would be the perfect place to do it.

This is Michoacán and I believe with all the murders and resultant tragedies that the subject of death is on everyone’s mind. This maybe explains in part why there is such a narrow line that exists between good and evil. Why the good people are so good and why evil is so shunned.

I personally don’t obsess over death. Okay, so maybe I think about it three times a day but I consider that to be more a reflection of my age and situation than I do anything else. If you want to consider me obsessed about anything at all then please do so in the context of my philosophical bent on trying to make sense of the nature of life. Or more selfishly said, the nature of my own life.

I don’t live in fear of death. If I did I most certainly wouldn’t be here. If anything death has come resemble a yardstick by which we can measure our lives.

I had an all too brief conversation with my 65 year old ex-sister-in-law back in Oregon a  week or so ago and I asked her if she had yet acquired the habit of reading the obits. She quickly replied, ‘No’, and that was the end of that.

Amazing. It was almost like denying death was somehow preventative.

I for one am grateful to be in a less hygienic place where the recognition, death is all around, makes those of us still here, alive to be profoundly humble and grateful.

* John Smith, 61, of Charlevoix passed away July 10th.  John was born August 25, 1955 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of William and Alice Smith.

John graduated from Charlevoix High School and attended Northern Michigan University.  After leaving college he began working alongside his father in the family business, Smith Roofing Company, which he later took over once William retired.

John is survived by his three children, etc. and was preceded in death by etc.

John will be remembered for many things… his love for his children, his dog, Petey, and for anything with an engine. Over the years John proudly owned many boats, beautiful cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles. He was an accomplished skier… both snow and water. Nothing made him happier than cooking for friends and family, a Michigan State Spartan win, or listening to Katy play her guitar.

A private memorial service will be held July 17th in Charlevoix.

(And yes, I changed the names, dates, etc.)

So this was an obit I read this morning online in my local hometown newspaper before I set out for my run. And yes, I knew John way back when. I went to school with him. We were 3 months apart in age. He’s dead and I am alive. Period – but not really.

Because I have a couple of comments to make about his life/obit. First, anytime it is written ‘he attended X University’ means he didn’t graduate, if not the obit would specify the degree he had obtained. Second, unbeknownst to you, he grew up privileged in the same town I grew up in poor. Third, he took the easy way out – dropped out of university and took over his father’s very successful business. He lived large – as the obit attests – ‘John proudly owned many boats, beautiful cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles’.

And therein lies the yardstick. There are no do overs. Death is where you reach that spot on the measurement stick where it ends. And in this particular case, John got to somewhere around the 11″ mark; not even a third of the way to living a meaningful life. The simple fact that the majority of the obit spoke to what he ‘proudly owned’ doesn’t amount to shit in my opinion.

Really, is that all his family could say about his life? Dead at 61 and he owned a bunch of shit?

My run this morning was so extremely special as it was almost akin to having a conversation with God. Or better said, a minor miracle of sorts was revealed to me. I again saw beauty, truth and grace at its most sublime. Francisco, the driver of the pickup truck, – to say he was generous, gracious, and kind would be an understatement bordering on insult.

He told me he had seen me running before and that he wanted to meet me. But what a privilege that turned out to be for me. I was the one who learned. I was the one who benefited from meeting him. Not the other way around.

I am just this old half naked gringo in running shorts, a bandana, and sandals loping through their countryside, at best a novelty to these hardworking people who work the fields. Yet everyone has done nothing but treat me with respect and kindness.

And I do my absolute best to reciprocate. I stop and talk to everyone who has an inclination to visit. Old men on bikes. Kids. Men driving tractors. Everyone.

I think I am finally learning by example that what you get is determined by your understanding and appreciation of said same.

And it’s all in the little things. A stranger introducing himself. A stranger who through kindness becomes a comrade.

Viva Mexico.


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