06/26/2009 12:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


When my nephew was six or seven years old, he composed a short poem which still gives me chills -- he had no idea what it meant (or maybe he did) and I have no idea how he wrote it, but it's as deep and dark as anything I've read:

Soon it comes to every person,
See it happen in one black curtain

Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, are names from my youth who have now gone behind the black curtain. Not to mention the far more disturbing murder of Neda Soltani, whose life bled away in front of us, her eyes staring off into that infinite distance only the dying see.

I wrote this on Twitter: "With the loss of anyone famous what we're really mourning is the passage of our own lives, their death a marker on OUR journey."

I wrote it because death is ever-present and life is ever-shrinking. For some of us, death is an obsession, for others, barely an afterthought. My childhood was bombs and bullets and bodies and burning buildings, so I'm of the former. The thought of eternal non-existence is unthinkable, mortifying beyond words. If that's the fate that awaits us, it's a wonder that we don't all curl up and scream in endless horror. Some people do, figuratively.

Death is life's greatest motivator, for good and evil, fueling our futile quest to 'matter' - futile, because the people we seek to 'matter to' are themselves reaching out to us to give them meaning. It's like two jumpers hurtling to earth, each reaching for the other, but neither with a foothold and both doomed to the same end. Some try to matter by helping others, some by hurting others, all with the desire to be remembered, to bridge an unbridgeable gap, to leave some kind of a mark, to prove that they existed.

Humans are impossibly lonely creatures, staring forlornly into time and space, without an anchor or a reference point, probing the depths of physics, philosophy, psychology, poetry, but forever bumping up against the unknowable.

My father, who died a decade ago, adored Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat -- this quatrain in particular:

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help--for it
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

Searching for the light behind the dark curtain, we turn to religion, to faith, to drugs, to music, to love. We get a glimmer of hope with stories of near death and other paranormal experiences. We meditate and pray. We look to nature and art and beauty. We dream.

And I think we do get glimpses of the light behind the curtain. In hypnagogic states (the twilight before sleep), in moments of transcendence when our thinking brain is suspended, in vague remembrances of a home, a place of origin whose location is timeless and dimensionless, in the sudden opening -- and closing -- of a portal during moments of intense fear and love and pain and pleasure, in the stillness of night and nature, in strange confluences and coincidences, in the inexplicable faith that somehow, somewhere, there is an answer.

It's amusing to me that science, in its quest to deconstruct and debunk, has reaffirmed the ephemerality of the physical world -- quantum theory paints a wonderful and mysterious picture of a universe that is merely thought and potential. Just imagine that when you look out across the horizon, everything in your sight is energy, nothing solid, and that it's all a thought in your mind. And that you are a thought in someone else's mind.

We've seen the black curtain this week and it gives us pause, as it should, and it hurts, as it must. Still, we have reason to believe that behind the curtain is something even more mysterious, more frightening and more beautiful than the world we know.


UPDATE: shireengonz, one of the commenters in the discussion thread below, recommends a gripping video that raises fascinating questions about the subject of this post: