While visiting Scotland for the first time, I was met with a shocking, yet obvious, reality – one you could relate to the feeling of a cold breeze sneaking up under your kilt to remind you it’s cold. I was reminded that I am alive. Which, of course, I know and you know, but how often do we really think about this?
It was 2013 and I was embarking on my first pilgrimage for a class in my graduate program. Our final destination was an island called Iona, off the northern coast of Scotland. I started the trip by traveling through northern Europe with my mom before meeting my friends in Edinburgh.
Amongst the many differences I find when traveling outside my home country, there is one that is particularly relevant for this story. At home, my experience has always been that lobbies are on Floor 1, and you always travel up to your room. In this hotel, the lobby was on Level 0 and from there you could either go up or down. Our room was on Level -1. The receptionist gave us our keys and encouraged us to explore the roof of the hotel after getting settled, as there was a great view of the castle and city from there.
The room was wonderful. I had been sharing tiny spaces with my mother for most of the trip, so you can imagine that the apartment-sized room was a well-received luxury. We each had our own bedroom and there was a full kitchen with a coffee maker (yay!). I was hoping our room would have a nice view, too, but no. The view out the window was underwhelming – it was just a dingy stone wall.
We made our way up to the roof and looked out at the Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile, Arthur’s Seat – what a view! It was gorgeous. AMAZING. We bathed in the sunshine and even poured ourselves a beverage. What a blissful experience! It was a real treat.
As I meandered over to another side of the building (the side our room was on) my eyes bounced around to all the sights. It’s a very old and beautiful city. There was something very detailed next door, with lots of people. I watched in neutral curiosity for a few seconds and then it hit me. When my mind met my eyes, or, rather, when they crashed together in that horrifying moment, I realized that it was a graveyard. There was an ancient graveyard on the other side of that wall, right outside my bedroom. And I was sleeping on Floor -1.
How much sleep do you think I got that night? If you’re thinking “not much,” you are correct.
After two sleepless nights (and no visible ghosts, btw), I met up with my classmates and we made our way to Glasgow. I told everyone my story. You see, this is not typical in the United States – or at least anywhere I’ve spent time. Graveyards are typically off on their own. They are separate, because death is not a part of our lives – right? So, my friends were quick to meet me in my horror, as you might imagine.
At the hotel in Glasgow, I was getting settled in my room and there was a knock on my door. It was a friend from school. “Did you look out the window?” she asked. Guess what was out my window? If you guessed “another graveyard,” you are correct again! At least I was up a few floors this time.
At this point it feels important for me to note that my limited experience with death is a privilege, and maybe not ideal. All I can do is share my own experience – it is the only one I have. A big part of traveling is just showing up to experience other cultures and learn from them. I try to get out of my comfort zone. Clearly the obvious presence of a cemetery isn’t abnormal in the everyday life of a Scottish local, but it was a bit of a culture shock to me. Comfort zone exited.
We explored the wonderful city of Glasgow that evening. We enjoyed local music at a concert. I had some lovely fish sticks and peas. We walked past the Glasgow Necropolis, a huge and gorgeous relic lit up fantastically against the dark city evening. We don’t have anything like this at home. I thought at first that a necropolis was a cathedral; it certainly looked like a cathedral. But no, a necropolis is a graveyard, naturally. We ventured into this ancient graveyard in the dark and I couldn’t believe I was there. You don’t go into a graveyard at night!
One of my favorite professors, a guide for this trip, was with us in the graveyard. When I joked about my discomfort with all the graveyards of the past few days, his statement caught me dead in my tracks. He said, “Jasmine, I think the dead are trying to tell you something.” “What?” I laughed – thinking he was playing with me. “They are telling you to live.”
Wow. Aren’t words powerful? My entire experience shifted in that moment. I realized he was right. I am breathing, but am I truly alive?
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes about embracing the angel of death. When I first read this, I was like “eek” and wanted to avoid that topic. But I read this book for the first time years ago, and to this day, that is the part that stays with me. It impacted me more than the “agreements” themselves. He says that death is our teacher. “What the angel of death can teach us is how to be truly alive.” It is a “choice to use every moment to be happy, to do what we really enjoy doing” (p.118).
How would you live differently if you received a diagnosis and knew that you only had a small amount of time left? I have read many articles about people on their deathbeds explaining what they would have done differently. They share their experience from a place we probably can’t fully understand, but their wisdom is invaluable. Their accounts are worth reading if you have time for a quick internet search. Many of them have different versions of the same themes: They would work less; spend more time with those they loved; not have waited to do things; and cared less what other people think of them.
Time flies, people. I hate to be the bearer of bad news… but you have your diagnosis. We all do. But what a gift it is to think about death – we don’t have to be afraid. We can be reminded that we are mortals and we are alive! We are lucky to have this message while we still have time to act.
Rarely does a day pass without me thinking about that experience in the graveyard in Scotland. Every time I pass a cemetery, I am reminded. I try to pause for a moment, express gratitude for my life, and remember to live. I am so grateful for this mental shift – because it’s an important one. Like, the most important. I do not want to waste my life. I want to live! Do you?
We are alive. Sometimes we just need a reminder.
So, in honor of the simple reminder that you are alive, here are some key things you can do (if you aren’t doing them already).
Okay, let’s not overwhelm ourselves. This is a great start. Find out how you want to live, and do it. You are given the choice of how you want to spend your life. You can choose wisely, starting now.