If you suffered through my sorry apology post, you may recall that #4 of the “43 Eternal Truths” is: “We are all already dying and we are going to be dead for a long time.” If I had been considering abandoning ship on this project before I got to that one, well, there’s no “considering” about it anymore. I mean, yes, I will write about depression and other difficult things, and I am not, in general, a naturally happy person, but for God’s SAKE.
The thing is, though, I have this friend…
Her name is Barbara, and in addition to the other incredibly interesting things she does in her life (like founding and running a communications and advocacy firm specializing in strengthening the voice of the nonprofit community, for one), she is currently engaged in something called the Year to Live project.
Here’s how she describes this project on her blog, Last Year to Live: An Experiment in Making Every Day Matter:
“In an ideal world, I’d live out my 80+year life expectancy and die quietly in my sleep.
‘She was healthy & sharp until the very end,’ they’d all say.
But I’m trying something different here. This time around I’ll take my final breath at age 43.
(For all my friends who panic when they read that, I can assure you that this is a voluntary quest…)
I’m participating in a “Year to Live” study group, based on the book of that name by Stephen Levine. We’re a group of about 25 who meet once a month at the cozy Village Zendo in New York City. We’ve all been given the hypothetical date of January 20, 2011 to live.
‘What a downer,’ some have said.
‘Why on earth would you do that?’ others manage.
For me, this is really an exercise in living.”
And her blog is a way that anyone can follow along on Barbara’s journey of living this “last” year. Her posts range from reflections on her daily life with her husband and children in New York to the necessity of travel, human rights advocacy and social change. Her current post is a must-read because it actually touches on all of these things AND describes how she met the president’s mother in 1994 and how it changed her life. Really, you have to read it.
When I asked Barbara to describe what made her even consider doing the Year to Live project, she wrote, ” [T]he truth is, I was growing deeply afraid of the deaths of people around me, not so much my own death. I have who I call the ‘5 Elders’ in my life — my parents, my in-law’s, a very close aunt — and they are all around eighty years old. How would I handle their eventual and certain deaths? The thought paralyzed me.”
In Barbara’s posts you get a sense of how mindfulness is important to her: in her meditation practice, her descriptions of the rebirth of a community park in her neighborhood, of walking past people on the street with her children and making eye contact, of conversations with fellow travelers on a train meandering across Turkey.
And it’s all told with the quiet, curious and appreciative tone of someone saying, “Here’s what I see,” not “You should really try to be a better person…” which can happen with writing about mindfulness. And she sees so much. Which is why I’m reading along with my own appreciation and curiosity, and learning something with every post.
Barbara just participated in a silent retreat (and has promised to write about it soon!). In her reply to my question about doing this project, she reflected, “Am I any better prepared to deal with the death of the 5 Elders? Possibly. But the unexpected beauty of this project for me has been to experience my own moments passing into expansiveness, bit by bit. It’s truly an experience of life itself.”
So I’m sending this post out with gratitude to my friend, not only for rescuing me from having to write about Eternal Truth #4 because she is already doing it and very eloquently, but also for helping anyone who reads about her project to be able to answer the questions this poem by Mary Oliver asks: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Get out there and live.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA
Lovely Leslie, and I have been following Barbara’s posts and am finding such meaning there.
A friend died on May 5 – too soon, only 50. A cousin died last June at 37, sudden, shocking – left sons then 2 months and 22 months. And nearly a year ago, my grandmother, mind and body intact, died peacefully at nearly 96. We don’t have any guarantees that we’ll get my grandmother’s death, and so I echo your sentiment to get out there and live. Thank you for reinforcing a message I have been getting for a year!
I regret that I have not responded for some time. I do like everything you write. I look forward to reading your writing.
I do not think one can fully prepare for something one must know “experientially.” As you know, I have lost my husband, father-in-law, and mother as well as two close women friends who were spiritual mentors and partners in the past 6 years. Mom died 6 months ago.
I find that all of this loss has left me often confused. I walk into a room and can’t recall why I am here or there. I have let a great deal go, I forgive easily and care less. I have just walked away from 2 unpleasant, demanding jobs. Life seemed too short. I forgive far more easily-but not always. Sometimes, I wonder who I have become… as do my adult children.
Through the mortality of those I love, I keenly feel my own and striving is not worth it. I feel almost a care free child, walking down the road on a summer day. I have returned to where I once walked when 8 years old and felt laughter bubbling up. The joy of being like everyone and everything, blissfully average and mortal.
Being beside people, holding them in my arms as they depart, I felt keenly that a life force had left the body but not the room. I like to talk about those who have died but in our denial of death culture, this seems to make many people uncomfortable.
Oh, and the Oliver poem! The man I have been with for nearly 4 years quoted it to me when we met. Today, as I sat praying for compassion, it popped into my head. I now read it here and take it as a sign, a blessing. Here is a another favorite quote from Virginia Woolfe who was very familiar with death at an early age, “The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has 2 edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart assunder.” Thank you again, continued blessings, Colleen
I just sat down to read your post, and I wanted to let you know how moved I am. Talking about death can really make me feel like the skunk at the garden party at times, so I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your openness to this exploration.
Colleen has to be right — that you can’t fully prepare for death in advance. That it can only truly be known experientially. I think about that a lot these days.
What I’ve come to believe is that preparing even a small bit is many times better for me than leaving it up to fate. And somehow this preparation is making life more vivid in the day-to-day.
What happens next remains to be seen!
Best to you, Lana, Colleen and all your readers,