Dani Shapiro
November 2, 2014

Not If, But When

This morning the dogs woke me at the same ungodly hour they always do, despite having turned back the clocks last night. They apparently can’t tell time. My husband is away at a film festival. My son is away at school. So alone, in my big fluffy white bathrobe, I trudged downstairs and out into the pale flush of dawn. My slippers slapped against the cold stone steps. A brisk November wind whistled through the creaky tree branches as the last of the autumn leaves skittered across the driveway.

Not if, but when. The words moved swiftly through my mind, leaving their trace. Not if, but when.

 I’ve always known this, of course. We all do. We live our lives either running in terror from this reality, or embracing it. I’m not sure there’s a third option, a place of neutrality. How can we be neutral about the idea that our days are numbered? That time moves doggedly, persistently, inevitably forward, and we are nothing more than those leaves on the branches of trees? We are buds, if we’re lucky we bloom, we flower, we are affected by the weather –– the hailstorms of life –– and again, if we’re lucky, we turn rich and magnificent colors, we cling to the branches, we fall, oh how we fall, gracefully, or perhaps not-so-gracefully, through the air. We dance roughly along roads, sink into gutters, are ground into nothing as the stillness of snow blankets us –– until we are no longer us. We are the very earth that cultivates whatever comes next.

Have you stopped reading by now? I don’t mean to seem melancholy. I don’t feel melancholy. I used to run in terror. When I was a young woman (and oh, even that is a phrase that is hard to leave on the page) I lived in fear of the other shoe dropping. I worried about my own health, the health of those I loved. I couldn’t deal with the idea of impermanence. Those years were a howl for me. I railed against my own deep, mute knowledge that I, and everything I loved, was at the mercy of time. And time bore this out. My life closed twice before its close, wrote Emily Dickinson. To live is to lose. To love is to have our hearts broken. We know this. We know this –– and yet.

Not if, but when.

On the bulletin board above my desk, I keep postcard, sent to me by a friend, that shows a half-dozen Tibetan monks dressed in saffron robes, on the steep decline of a roller coaster ride. Their hands are flung up in the air, these monks, and they are laughing, rapturous. Oh life! Oh speed! Oh the joy of this one, precious moment!

There’s a difference between neutrality and equanimity, I think. Neutrality is a dulled and dull way of living. I mean, who wants to be Switzerland? But equanimity is an intentional, disciplined way of being. When I remember that this one day, this precise second –– the dogs snoring at my feet, the branch scraping against the window, geese honking in the distance, my beloved husband on the others side of the country on his way to show his film, my son, light of my life, an hour north of me at his lovely school, me, about to head out the door to a yoga class, writers – twenty of them – flying to New England from all over the world to take part in a retreat I’ll be teaching with a dear friend, but see… see how I’ve gotten ahead of myself?

Not if, but when.

So all there is to do, right at this very moment, is breathe in, breathe out, and kiss the joy as it flies.