Death and the Danish Shield

Yes, I remember now. The Danes at one point had a very high rate of self-inflicted death, a result it was generally thought of the brooding, gray skies, the lack of sunlight.

They were tough about it. And I understand internally why, because those who go through that wind shear into the other world create a drag, like the current behind a boat, pulling others along. So the Danes taught as a matter of general public information — like the long term campaign in California against smoking (that my French mother thought ridiculous) — taught that suicide was a selfish act.

Who knows if that is entirely true. But it creates a shield against the magnetic pull of the departing.

While it’s a general topic of conversation today, self-killing was or seemed a strange and rare thing, when I was young. I used to live next to a canyon in Pasadena, called an arroyo, that had a casting pond at the bottom. So the water was two, maybe three inches deep.

One day when I was about ten, there were a lot of police cars on the street and I went across the street to look down on the casting pond. There was a young man, or his mortal shell, laying along the edge of the pond. There was speculation that it was about a girl.

I remember that it was something I could not understand, but more than that, a whiff of stale horror hung around it, that I remember a lifetime later. This was a zone of the mind that I did not want to be around, ever.

And yet, as a college student, I, like others, felt the tumble into the depths, where, writing about it then, I dreamt of coffee grounds, egg shells and orange peels. The rind of life, as it were.

It happened more than once, and I learned to have faith in my ability to night by night, week by week, build up from that low place, essentially leveraging my way back up to the surface, to the light of day. It took a good period of time.

Work, concentration on tasks, helped. Running was good, and icy showers. A regular schedule.

It was like recovering from a physical injury. You had to have patience, and strength.

All this was brought back to mind after seeing with some shock a story on our own news page about the death of Anthony Bourdain.

“I’m depressed!” a friend told me. “Because of Anthony Bourdain!”

She rejected the idea that the act is selfish. The Danes actually go another step to say it is manipulative.

“I have been there,” she said. When she was young, she had lined up the pills. But, as she put it, she chickened out.

“The pain is so deep you give up.”

Referring to Bourdain’s daughter, she said, “She was not on the screen. It was all black.”

I had watched his show Parts Unknown with a good bit of jealousy. He had the guts to do as a job what my dad had done as an avocation, traveling to other parts of the world and stepping into them, through meals and conversations, and photography.

The resulting stories were everywhere, and it brought out excellent writing as different news outlets tried to summarize a person who was larger than life. They were essentially eulogies. Brian Williams on the Eleventh Hour read a well-crafted and powerful piece that described Bourdain’s gait “like a collection of spare parts.”

As did others, he referred to “The Heart of Darkness,” a book I have never managed to finish.

“In the end,” said Williams, “dark won.”

The next day, I felt the blues creeping up on me, for some reason, and immediately cut back on the beer I was drinking. I avoided stories about Bourdain’s death – with the same reaction I had when I was a kid, wanted no part of this mental zone — but then I remembered the Danish shield. Thus protected, I read all the eulogies and related articles that came across my news threshold.

It takes guts and courage to go through life. We have to stick with it.

 

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