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  • Amy Agape

Back to School: Birth in the Midst of Death

Shiny yellow pencils with sharp points, reams of lined notebook paper, color-coded folders and binders inscribed with my name in my neatest handwriting. Automatically, these items signify New Year to me -- much more than party hats, champagne, or noise-makers do. Calendars may mark the turn of the year as January 1, but many of us who were raised in the West celebrate the birth of a fresh start as school days begin after summer break.

School children in the United States experience a multitude of newness -- new classrooms, new teachers, new friends -- while much of what surrounds them is nearing the end of its lifecycle.

I love that this time of new year begins when things are beginning to die around me. After decades following this cycle, first as a student then as a teacher and as a mother, this interweaving of newness with waning feels entirely natural to me. And, although I celebrate January 1 in some way each year, it does not bring with it the new beginning openness that autumn does. It seems that birthing in the midst of dying has become part of my psyche.

I am not alone. This is actually part of all of our psyches, because birthing and dying necessitate one another. They are not opposites; rather, they are intricately interdependent. And our ancestors across the globe have observed this in myriad ways.

Judaism, for instance, celebrates birth in the midst of that which is dying each year. Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year, always happens during the season of harvest. (This year, that date is October 9; our October newsletter will delve more deeply into some of the gifts of the Jewish High Holy Days -- for ALL of us experiencing transitions). The abundace of autumn heralds beginnings; a fresh start is given to each of us in the final days before everything seems to disappear into the approaching winter.

As I lay dying in a hospital bed years ago, there was new life all around me. My son was learning to walk as I was becoming unable to walk. Each aspect of our lives reminded me that the tapestry of life can only be created with both new and old threads, with firsts and with lasts.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This certainly seems to be true cognitively. It can be challenging to simultaneously open to thoughts that seem to contradict one another. But wisdom does not live in the intellect alone; it is a lived experience.

In our bodies we each know that birth and death are not separate. They are interwoven experiences, not opposed ideas. And each necessitates the other.

I began to be able to articulate this as I was dying all those years ago. But I began to know it long before that, in the days when I gathered my school supplies amidst the changing of the seasons.



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