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Tiptoe Through the Tulips on the Way to Nothingness

In my last column, I shared that I’d been diagnosed with a large brain tumor behind my left eye. Six weeks after a biopsy at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital, I’ve still not received a treatment plan – although I’m told it will likely involve the usual radiation and chemo. The reality is that it’s palliative, not curative, since tumors like mine eventually consume one’s entire being.

So, I’ve spent the last six weeks in a rather bizarre state of mind. I’ve surprised myself so far by not feeling a great deal of anxiety in the face of not existing in a few months or years. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was a kid, memorizing countless lines of morbid poetry for extra credit in my English classes. I went through the death of numerous friends during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. Not long before I turned 30, I had a classic near-death experience (NDE) in a hospital. It left me with the sense that dying might be pleasant but told me nothing about an afterlife since I didn’t actually die.

A few years later, I began studying meditation with a Zen teacher in Houston, where I was editing a super glossy home and garden magazine for the wealthy. I told my teacher about my NDE, and he insisted we meet to practice together at newly dug graves in local cemeteries. I found this difficult, but not because I felt a bit like a neo-goth hipster. It actually stimulated intense memories of my childhood practice of lying in the backyard with my friend Joel and telling him stories of what was occurring in the underworld, which my brain accessed by way of a large drain in the garden. My Zen teacher of course told me to put the stories aside and just be present. I told him that when I did that as a kid, Joel showed up swinging a dead raccoon by its tail, which caused my mother to scream for two hours and not speak to me for the next 24 hours. “Oh, so, without the story, you have no control?” he whined rhetorically. “Just let the swinging dead critter be.”

I must say I found the graves a good antidote to the slimy feeling I got from peering at the over-designed interiors of oil magnates’ homes.  Now, contemplating nothing, I find myself mesmerized by the natural (but cultivated) world. I’m lucky to live across from Grant Park and I’ve watched spring beautify the neighborhood. I track individual foliage and flowers with virtually no thought in my head. It’s a purely aesthetic experience. Yesterday, a child, hanging off a bicycle, smiled and pointed at the sky, where clouds turned into Rorschach figments of the imagination. Then an obese bumblebee circled my sutured head. The day was quiet enough that I heard its wings vibrating, a reminder of the vibrations I felt on the train that brought my family south when I was an infant. Sometimes, I park somewhere and end up just sitting in my car and watching the world go by. One day, I left my feet dangling out the door and an elderly couple got very excited by my cheap yellow shoes and asked me to runway-walk them. They are barefoot shoes meant for deadlifting in the gym.

When I come inside our ancient house, the chaos does annoy me. It’s like being back in Houston but without the absurdly refinished antiques and the designers who basically re-designed the rooms we photographed for the magazine. A part of me wants to die in the park with a vegan coyote. I’ve attempted to impose minimalism on my flock of ceramic flamingos and old collection of death memorabilia, but it never lasts. The strange always leaks back. On Easter, one of our cats, Patricia, died. The other, Quiz, has been severely crippled by arthritis for two years, lives full-time on a table in the sunroom, and eats a lot. She doesn’t seem interested in dying despite her 26 years. A new rat has inhabited our kitchen. Its grooming looks like a poodle’s or a case of unfinished manscaping of the pubic region. I wish he would leave, but his comical style makes plotting his murder unappealing.

Sigmund Freud declared at the beginning of the last century that the inevitability of death makes life inherently tragic. That view continues to pervade much of psychotherapy, to the degree that every loss supposedly initiates death anxiety. In the last few years, I ended long friendships with a few people who repeatedly banished me after I said or did something offensive. Then, after months or even years, they would reconnect with me. How did it take me 25 years to remember that this was exactly what my often-cruel mother did to me throughout my childhood and adolescence? With her and with them, there was never processing to help me understand my error, much less theirs. I knew the inevitable outcome, yet I kept handing them the axe.

I tell myself: Don’t live that way. The poodle rat that eyes you in the kitchen, the unknown child who directs your eyes upward, the crazy people who stare at your stupid shoes, the teacher who whines for you to look the other way, and the sprig that captures your seeing heart when it turns unexpectedly into a flower – look for the poetry in your life. Yes, I know that my anxiety will increase when I begin treatment but, hey, my ashes – and yours – will forget it all.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now (still) practices more informal “life coaching” to help people who feel blocked in the creative pursuit of their dreams. Visit and contact him at You can also interact with him and other readers at