Recipient of the prestigious 2018 Humanities Award from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Frank Ostaseski has been tending to the dying and advocating for death literacy for over three decades. His latest book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully is a must read death literacy primer.
DM: What’s your current state of mind?
Actually I’m kind of delighted to be in the midst of this conversation with you because we are talking about something that has meaning and purpose and that always brings a kind of joy and happiness.
DM: What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect Happiness…you know I think recognizing that this moment is perfect just as it is and not needing it to be something other than it is.
DM: Why did you write The Five Invitations?
(Laughs) Well you know I avoided trying to write it for many years. My wife persuaded me to write it and thank god she did. I think I wrote it because so many people…I’ve seen so many people die in fear and regret and I thought we could do something about that. So the book is really an attempt to share the wisdom that dying people gave to me.
DM: What did David Whyte mean by: “Apprentice yourself to the curve of your own disappearance”?
Watch the way you end your day and ritualize it in some way. One of the things that my wife and I often do comes from our friend Angelis Arrien. We ask four questions: What inspired you today? What challenged you today? What surprised you today? And, What did you learn about love today?
DM: In less than three sentences, what is one lesson from your book?
Don’t wait. Don’t wait! You know waiting is full of expectation. By waiting for the next moment to arrive we miss this one. So to really step into life with both feet we need to recognize how precarious this life is and allow that realization to introduce us to its preciousness.
DM: What are you reading, what’s on your bedside table?
I’m reading a really great book called Making Peace with Your Mind by Mark Coleman. It’s on mindfulness and the inner critic. I’m also reading some Wendell Berry, which I like a whole lot.
DM: Do you have a favorite writer, book?
Well I mentioned one, Wendell Berry. From the vantage point of spiritual life, I very much like the work of A.H. Almaas. And I like the poets. I think David Whyte said ‘good poetry is pretty good prose with all the blank taken out.’ Marie Howe is one of my favorite poets- I think she’s quite brilliant.
DM: What is one thing people would never imagine about you?
I used to produce rock ‘n roll concerts. It was a lot of fun. I worked with all kinds of great acts from the Jefferson Airplane to Chuck Berry.
DM: What book would you like to be buried with?
What book would I like to be buried with? I’ve never had that question before. It’s a beautiful one. Actually I’d like to just be buried with a single poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez called “I Am Not I”. I Am Not I.
DM: What is your exit plan? How would you like to die?
Hmm, you know it’s funny. I’d like to be able to die in such a way that I can embrace whatever’s happening as it’s happening. That would be my favorite, that would be my best scenario. I don’t, it’s not so much about what conditions are around me, but really can I actually have some receptivity and openness to whatever’s happening as it’s happening. So “as is" would be my favorite way of dying.
DM: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
A golden retriever. I’ve had a few of them over my years and I’ve never seen my golden retriever be mean to anyone or anything, ever!. He taught me a really important lesson. Whenever he didn’t want to fight he would expose his greatest vulnerability…and so I think they are wise beings.
DM: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Nice to see you again.