In memory of Richard Simon, my beloved friend and fellow traveler.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all.
— “The Parting Glass” traditional Irish folk song
As the harsh reverberations of our grieving become a quieter sorrow, we come to another phase in the mourning of a splendid life lost. How do we carry our mourning into a life we still long to live well?
I believe that we are called to dig deep into our dearest memories of these lives. Not to use them as an unbreakable tether to the loss itself, but to reflect upon what their glistening legacies mean for our own futures. The legacies of extraordinary people we’ve lost invite us to embrace the examples they’ve left behind.
Mary Oliver, a celebrated poet who died a few years ago, was laser-focused on how we can enlarge our experience on this earth. She wrote primarily about the natural world, in which nothing was too big or too small to merit her absolute wonder.
I have to confess, I’m no fan of nature. It makes me wheeze. But interspersed in her poetry are no-nonsense, succinct, challenging, teasing, sometimes scolding messages about how to live our lives. Her vision is the one that best matches what I hold dear about the magical people I’ve lost. She embraces the exaltations and the devastations of every life with unflinching courage and boundless energy.
Oliver’s words coax me back to my core, sometimes so simply that I might protest, “Oh, yeah? Who didn’t know that?”
And I imagine her answering, “Well then, why is your life leaning off the rails right now?”
In her poem “Instructions for Living a Life,” she offers three steps. Only three. But they aren’t easy. Rather than offer a list of things to do, she encourages a shift in attitudes, in practices. She pushes us, in the words of another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, “to assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can.” That existence ranges from abandonment in sheer delight to the steely courage that cruel suffering demands.
Oliver’s touchstones for assuming that broad existence are: Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it.
We’ve heard those words since we were children—pay attention. Often, they were yelled out when we were about to walk into oncoming traffic, or stuck in geography class, fantasizing about a million more interesting things than buttes and straits. They were in the “behave yourself” category of warnings.
As a result, we learned to fake our attention, to skim the surface of it.
The sheer amount of input bombarding us every minute makes this almost an evolutionary prerequisite. We have become expert at dividing our attention. We prize our ability to dole it out, elevating it to the concept of “multitasking.” The idea of devoting our attention is fading.
Continuous loops play in our crowded minds, leaving us deaf to outside sound. Our vision is narrowed to the absolutely essential. We’ve lost the natural rhythms of our existence. Very little surprises us anymore. Our cynicism and powerlessness dull constructive outrage. We’re blind to what we consider insignificant, and need more and more stimulation to remain engaged with even the big stuff—relationships, other people. We’re enriched when we open ourselves up to the strangers who happen into our lives, with their unique stories and surprises. And for those we love, we’re called to rejoice in the constancy of their care and the exquisite unfolding of our connections to them.
When was the last time you gasped?
To pay attention is to wake up. To zero in. To be captivated. It requires that we devote the full power of our senses to it.
I was reminded of this concretely when I had what I call my “old-lady cataract surgery.” For those fortunately not yet initiated, cataracts can block and blur your vision as you age. They slowly drain the vividness of color, so that you don’t even miss it.
Two minutes after my surgery, I blinked my eyes open and I thought I was in The Wizard of Oz, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Not only was my vision technically improved, but it was as if my soul could see. Contours and colors were vivid. For several days, I proselytized about my miracle to people who couldn’t have cared less. “Look at that! Look at that!” I pointed to the late autumn sky, as wild oranges and pinks resisted the looming darkness. And my peripheral vision! I stopped looking only face-front and began to scan the panorama of the moment.
There was, of course, a downside to paying attention. I had no idea that the wrinkle situation on my face was so ominous, or that my house was as filthy as it was. But the ability to truly see was worth the discomfort over exactly what it was I was seeing. You can’t change what you don’t see.
To be astonished, you must believe that it’s possible to have your mind blown. To have your socks knocked off. We live in a detached era, in which we automatically try to reduce things to their lowest common denominator. We mush our world into palatable, bite-sized pieces, which we digest quickly and with minimal effort. What’s happening in our bodies, our backyards, and our world is overwhelming. The tsunamis that have rocked our lives have led us to filter. In the filtering process, we protect ourselves from feeling frightened or clueless—or shocked.
But we miss the wonder. As children, we could average twenty WOWs on a slow day. Things were new and exciting. Their unexpectedness was part of the delight. Remember the feeling of having someone you liked run up behind you, clap their hands around your eyes, and yell, “Guess who?!” If that happened now, I’d be pressing the emergency button on my cell phone.
Having a child reminded me of the way astonishment enriches a life. On our walks home from school, I was always in a hurry to get dinner going or return phone calls. My daughter would yell urgently, “Hey Mom, come here!” She’d be pointing to the cracked remains of a bird’s egg, or wondering about the three white rose petals with no nearby bush. I’d answer, “Oh, that’s great. Now let’s get going.”
My daughter was Magellan. She was Vasco da Gama and Ponce de León. It didn’t matter where she landed. It was all the New World to her. Where’s the Wow!, the Awesome!, the Cool!, the Oh my God! in you now? Even as we collect immense losses in our lives, we can give ourselves over to wonder.
We tend to attribute this kind of astonishment to childhood. But that’s a mistake. It’s an excuse.
My beleaguered FBI-agent father arrived home every night at 7:30. He called out “Hello” as if it were more a question than a greeting, and immediately went to lock up his gun. But one night, he burst through the door yelling, “Kids! . . . Kids, come here!” The six of us raced to him, expecting something great. He held out his clasped fist and announced “Look!” He opened his hand to display the sorriest looking coin I’d ever seen. It had been flattened by the Long Island Railroad trains numerous times. It was almost transparent. The contours were rough and uneven. It was so discolored that it was impossible to see an image or a date.
“Here,” he pushed it towards us. “It’s okay to feel it. Let’s see what it looks like underwater,” he said, as we all retreated to the four corners of the house, bored and deflated. There was no doubt: my father had lost it. I was almost embarrassed for him.
Fifty years later, on the afternoon he died, I wandered into my parents’ room and stood at his high mahogany bureau, lingering over the portrait of my mother, his silver hairbrushes, his various FBI awards. Back in the corner, there was an old, maroon leather ring box. Inside, in the slot for the ring, was that flattened, discolored, worthless coin he’d found years before.
He’d elevated the object of his astonishment. It was his talisman, a symbol of wonder, a memory of the jolt of delight in treasured discovery that could be experienced over and over. I pocketed it, and now I keep it on my desk.
It’s more than just a memory of my father. It’s a constant push toward being open to the unfamiliar, to finding our own magic in the most mundane. As Rilke reminds us, we must have courage “for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” The people whose lives I most admire dove into the possibilities and exuberantly celebrated what they found.
It’s not too late. We’re not in danger of running out of material. We only need to give ourselves over to the surprised appreciation of the lives that offered themselves to us.
Tell about It
“Telling about it” to our friends, our colleagues, our families, our readers is an act of courage. We have to share those astonishments we treasure, risking that others will be unimpressed. Translating what we see, feel, and hear is to communicate all those small, unique explosions in our brains. This is the daunting task of telling. We search for the language that will stretch from us to them, that invites them into our novel experiences.
“Tell about it” is a way of finding like beings with whom we can share our attention and astonishment. When we see something, like the froth of an angry ocean, or hear something, like the rolling giggle of the pudgy baby in the stroller in front of us at the store, we have to work to find the words needed to share our world in some small gift of communication. The cultural mantra “What’s new?” is often followed by the answer “Nothing.”
That is an affront to creation. Everything is new.
When we “tell about it,” we challenge ourselves with brave or wild words, with new melodies and emphasis. Again, think about the child, full of astonishment and description, imbued with the wish to extend it to someone else. Words trip over each other on their way out. Kids can’t “tell about it” fast enough. The need to connect fuels their push. Sometimes it’s downright annoying, but other times it’s the best contagion there is.
The guiding light of those we’ve lost shows us how to pay attention, to be open to astonishment, to grab hold of what is truly important in life. Our constraints keep us still and silent and painfully self-conscious, but the people whose lives we admire coax us ahead.
They remind us, in the words of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, that “we are all invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join in the general dance.”
“To forget ourselves on purpose.” I love that line. It tells me to get out of my own way. Casting our “awful solemnity to the winds” is the invitation to wonder, to frolic, to play the fool without fear. Despite, or maybe because of, the sorrow we feel, we can still reach back to those exquisite lost ones whose lives flow into ours.
Over time, if we’re blessed, our lost ones will be the ones who find us, who help us find our way.
Poet Derek Mahon offers the idea of the watchful heart, which pays attention and exhorts us to seize the expansiveness of our experience—from the very far away to the uncomfortably close-up. In a way, the watchful heart reassures us that, yes, we will get lost, perhaps in grief, but attending to the legacy of our “found ones” will always ease us back to where we need to be.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
— From “Everything Is Going to Be All Right,” Derek Mahon
Illustration © Jami Jennings
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