During the last few days, a dear friend’s daughter gave birth to a little girl and another friend’s 97-year-old mother went to sleep and didn’t wake for three days and three nights. Celebrating birth, I received texts and phone calls and adorable newborn baby photos. Contemplating imminent death, my friend, sitting sleepless at her sleeping mother’s bedside, and I texted about letting go. In a 21st century conversation, with words pared down to the minimum and no disturbance to her somnolent mom, we shared fear and love.
In the last few months, I have found much solace in meditations by The Art of Meditation teacher—Burgs. He explains that in the Buddhist tradition, this human incarnation is a rare and precious event, not easily achieved, not to be taken for granted. Certainly not to be wasted. He ponders why we have arrived here now. How long our souls may have waited and longed for this opportunity to be blessed with the extraordinary good fortune of our human birth.
As I listen to him, I imagine a celestial gathering of souls lining up and waiting with saint-like patience for their turn to enter a human body. Like waiting in line to get into the Beetles’ concert at Shea Stadium in 1965? A once in a lifetime opportunity. No, that’s not right …. And not nearly serious enough. A soul achieving this highest of births is an exceptional spiritual happening. A privilege and an opportunity. How do we forget this?
Buddhist or not … I am gifted, reminded by the darling little being who’s just dared to enter the world and by the 97-year-old, who, like Sleeping Beauty, has waked from her three-day sleep. (She’s still here, still wants to participate in her extraordinary life). Both brave beings inspire me to ask what I am doing with my one precious life. Am I treasuring this brief time? Am I choosing Life and Love so that my soul extends and expands to its greatest potential? And if not, hadn’t I best get started?
This year, on this day, November 19th, Philip would have turned seventy-three. Seventy-three—an age hard to fathom from where I sit so uncomfortably near to it. How did we get this old? I’m five years younger than Philip and have become accustomed to my sixties. But seventies? Isn’t that an undeniable border-crossing? A first step beyond middle-aged?
In my inner images of Philip, the man I carry gently tucked into the corners of my soul, he is forever young. The vulnerable man-child who, at our first encounter, reached for me, pulled me into his arms, and whispered, “Ahh, it’s you.” The rapscallion charmer who toasted me with a wink at our picnic wedding, acting more like a flirt on a pickup than a bridegroom. The whimsical dreamer, ever walking us into our next adventure.
“We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.” I read this quote from Thomas Brown (in Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening. 2000, 2020) and thought of Philip’s never-ending longing for his place on the planet. Was he mistaking the wonders without for those within? Do we ever find home? Is there some coordinate on a map where we belong, where we finally inhale reflected recognition and exhale a resounding relief? Ahh … here it is. We are home.
But must we accept that the inward turn is the only way to go (or stay)? Might there be another way or a combination of ways for some to attain the inner life? Would Philip ever have been able to nest, to settle into a physical place? Or was he bound to wander, to seek? He who otherwise spoke and wrote incessantly of the longings of the soul for the inward-facing life. He who chose to walk slowly so to be with a place. He who–rather than explore the tourist sites of a new town, preferred to sit on the city’s riverbank, savoring a ripe peach, and, from a contemplative distance, view an ancient cathedral.
Were his wonders solely within? He was also inclined to pack up his picnic, catch the next train, map out the route to the next destination, hail the next boat-taxi. He sat in the prow of the boats we took on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala like a happy dog with his ears flapping back in the wind, scenting and anticipating what was to come in the next port.
Was this impossibly contradictory soul happiest when he was on his way to the next possibility? A nomad, a gypsy? The one who takes to the road to find himself and his solace. Is it an absolute that salvation lies only in a turning within? Or are some of us destined to traverse a more roving, a more transient path on our way to that inner home?
Perhaps, we should have invested in a gypsy caravan (a small RV? A houseboat?) and spent our years wandering. Maybe it would have been a life of staying only long enough to imbibe the beauty and awe of a place, traveling with John Ruskin’s two aims for art: to find beauty in the particularity of each locale and/or to make sense of pain. Our vagabond life—a work of art.
In our simple rolling or floating home, we might, ironically, have found our ground in movement, in flow. Rather than seeking the one place to settle, perhaps, we were more akin to the traveler, Levison Wood, who feared that “getting stuck in one place meant a loss of momentum and with that the prospect of getting stuck in one narrative…” (An Arabian Journey, 2018). Possibly, had we shifted our narrative, no longer seeking a singular home, we might have found more satisfaction in the unsettled, more fluid way of life we’d unwittingly adopted. Perhaps, a narrative embracing a life on the road or the water would have allowed us to build our inward home, one we would furnish with all the splendors and sorrows of the wide world. In many ways, we’d already done this. Yet, the story of finding our place on the planet may have blinded us to an alternative way to see it. How powerful–these stories we tell ourselves. These tales we live by.
Mark Nepo says, “Seeking in the world has always been a way to mirror … where we need to work inwardly.” Perhaps, our way home would have been worked in flux, in search. Possibly, it was a multifaceted narrative, one of external change and diversity—mirroring back an interior journey rather than a settled existence.
Nepo quotes Saint Francis as saying, “You are that which you are seeking.” Maybe Philip was a seeker mistakenly looking for a place to settle. What he was seeking was the beauty that would ease his pain. Perhaps, a beauty that could not be held still or planted in one spot.
So, my wanderer, my gypsy soulmate, on your Birthday, wherever you roam and wherever you rest, I wish you love. I send you all the love I have found to furnish my inmost home in this time when I’m still here … and you have gone on.
I am delighted to have published a response to this captivating novel in which I’ve recently been deliciously immersed. The author, Maggie O’Farrell, transported me into a captivating world far from our time and place (Elizabethan England) yet reflecting so much that matters here and now, inwardly and out. The novel I read and loved is called Hamnet. For anyone who enjoys historical fiction, please, don’t miss this book. I won’t say anymore so that you will, I hope, read about it in my review on Christine Christman’s website, Goodwords Inc.
Christine’s website provides a rich and bountiful resource for readers. Take a wander around it at your readerly leisure: https://www.goodwordsinc.net/
The book reviews give you more than a good summary and taste of what the books are about. To focus my review, she asked me to respond to the following questions:
What did I learn about myself?
What did I learn about my world?
What new possibilities did this book help me imagine?
Attempting to respond to these points gave me an opportunity to reflect more deeply about the book than I otherwise would have. I hope you enjoy the review enough that it makes you want to read the book. It would be a great book club book.
Wishing all and each of you well and staying relatively sane in these challenging times.
At 5:35 a.m., a single ray of sunlight sneaked through the crack in the curtains. It sent just enough light into the room to rouse me from the tail-end of a dream in which a locomotive crashed through and devastated my dream-home.
Waking, I lay still, catching my breath, finding the morning, re-claiming the day-world. Eyes still closed, the light beyond my eyelids gratefully transformed the strange train-wrecked dream-world back into the golden peace of familiarity and a summer morning.
Breathing myself into the break-of-day, I opened my eyes.
Across the room, the ray of light landed with precision on the photograph of Philip that sits above my desk. A sunbeam spotlight lit his face while everything else remained in dusky darkness. Good morning, my love.
The words to an old song stirred in the cave of my memory.
But all I have is a photograph. And I realize you’re not coming back anymore.
What song was that? If Philip were here, he’d sing it instantly, no problem retrieving words or tune. His inner storeroom of old songs was remarkable.
I opened the curtains. Sunlight filled the room with light, dissipated sorrow. More and more, I learn to let the emotions of grief ebb and flow. The sorrow has mostly taken on a sweetness that’s gentler, easier to live with.
Later in the morning, thanks to the Internet, I found Ringo Starr and George Harrison singing the song, “Photograph.” I cried and sang along. Cried for Philip not coming back anymore, cried with the nostalgia of the music and those familiar voices.
I can’t get used to living here, while my heart is broke, my tears I cry for you. /I want you here to have and hold, as the years go by and we grow old and grey. /Now you’re expecting me to live without you, but that’s not something that I’m looking forward to.
Here’s the link to the song if you want to travel back to wherever that tune and those beautiful zany boys take you.
And here’s my good news. The audiobook version of Life with an Impossible Person is now available on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. Or you can use this link. Please, go there and listen to the Free Audible Sample.
The narrator, Katya Jadwick, is an actress with an exceptional ability to place herself fully inside the characters and the story. We have collaborated throughout this last year as she worked on the recording. The result is a reading that has the power to move me to tears, laugh out loud, and ache with longing. Her performance lifts the words off the pages and gently carries the listener into the scenes and emotions of the book.
Katya also happens to be the grownup version of the little girl I met when she was three years old. Philip carried her on his shoulders, sang, and recited poetry to her. We had the great good fortune to be close to her through her childhood, her teens, and into her young womanhood. She has infused her love for Philip and the depths of her soul into the reading, and, hence, touches the heart over and over again. This performance is a beautiful gift to me, and I believe to all who will listen. Katya’s reading is a spoken-word sunbeam sneaking through the curtains, lovingly illuminating Life with an Impossible Person. Heartfelt thanks, Katya.
Another person in my building died last night. Living in a building for seniors, I am increasingly less shocked, if no less sorrowed, by death. Is this a good thing?
I didn’t know Vicki well. Still don’t know her last name. My friends and I referred to her as Smoking Vicki … This to distinguish her from the other Vicki With the Little Dog. That’s the way we remember names in an 11-story building filled with people who joke about memory loss.
Smoking Vicki – who sat in her car to smoke — was someone I learned to look for. Someone I stopped to talk with. She had answers to my practical problems or questions: Where do I go to buy new tires? What time should I get to the courthouse to avoid waiting for hours to register my car? Where’s the closest UPS store? The cheapest carwash?
But I also gave her my book when I learned that her husband had died, too, years back. She read it, sitting in her car, smoking, and crying. Commiserating about the challenges of caring for complicated and difficult men as they made their way towards death, we laughed through our tears. We talked of picking up the pieces, of carrying on when the reason for carrying on had died.
Smoking Vicki was ready for a laugh, a story, a frustration. She was kind, thoughtful. There for those in need. She drove and sat in the emergency room with a resident after he’d fallen off his horse. Went to the store for Saltines or Fresca when stomach flu’s hit. Always aware of what was going on in the building and who needed what. No big deal. No flap. No hesitation. Ready to help with words and deeds.
Curious and intelligent, she listened with interest and one more question rather than waiting to reply. Still working on herself, she was usually reading when I’d approach her car window. And she’d look up, stop reading … welcoming and eager for conversation.
She’d lost 40+ pounds in this last year. Was up at 4 a.m. and off to the gym by 4:30 to get her treadmill time in while most of us were rolling over for that last sleep.
Smoking Vicki was always “coming up to the final day of smoking.” Tuesday is the day, she’d tell me. This is the year I’m going to beat this damned habit once and for all. But now, instead, the final day of smoking has come up on Vicki. The smoking struggle is over and done.
Having watched my mom struggle through her final year … maybe two, I’m getting better at standing back, finding a kind of peace underlying my tears … or is it resignation? I hear myself say, Better … kinder … for her for death to come so quickly. But for myself and even more for her friends like Carol (not Cleaning Carol but Blue Van Carol) and Ruby and all the others who called Vicki friend or mother or sister, the loss is – as loss must be – yet another break of the heart (as another grieving friend wrote recently).
We are resilient and fragile, courageous and frightened. We face loss, accept death even as we grieve it. And, hopefully, we are (on good days) a little stronger, a little more compassionate, a little more appreciative of our lives and our loves.
Rest in peace, Vicki. I will miss you, am grateful for having crossed paths with you.