I’m writing this from a cottage in Provincetown, at a place where I have spent a week teaching each summer for the past six years. My husband is at a cafe down the road having breakfast with our son. It’s early, quiet. In half an hour I will walk across the courtyard to my workshop where we will spend several hours talking about matters such as loss, grief, sorrow, family, love, and all the attendant joys and terrors. We’ll discuss what it means to attempt to shape these inchoate, chaotic feelings, these random events, into stories that have form, order, and logic. Essay: to attempt. It never fails to move me when I watch people trying to make sense of their lives, sense of this world. They don’t have to. They all have busy lives, filled with responsibilities. They could go on auto-pilot and move through their days, weeks, months, years, without stopping, without asking what it all means. They could do that — we could all do that — without even registering the cost of psychic inaction.
When my mother was dying, at the age of eighty, she once turned to me, her face clouded with puzzlement, and said: but I was just getting my life together. That statement terrified me, and subsequently instructed me. I didn’t want to feel, on my deathbed, that I had just been getting my life together. A few years later, Sylvia Boorstein shared a list of the eleven benefits of practicing metta meditation, and the one that stood out most for me was: to die unconfused.
These are challenging times for many of us. The state of politics, of poverty, of inequality, of racism, homophobia, hunger, small-mindedness combined with the sheer speed of life makes it all too attractive to put our heads down and barrel through life, fueled by fear and our natural instincts for self-preservation. But my daily life as a writer and a teacher reminds me that there is another way. Look, I tell my students. Stop. Witness. The beauty and terror — Rilke‘s phrase — is all around us. If we avoid the latter, we will also miss the former. Embrace it all, I want to say. And perhaps, some day, you will be able to whisper to yourself: I have lived.