wise souls have been preaching it, teaching it, imploring, beseeching, practically gluing the words onto billboards tucked by the sides of the busiest highways: “this is your one short life. don’t waste it.”
the original disappearing act; with every day lived your sum is shortened. a beginning with built-in end.
we bow our head, nod along, swear out loud we’ve gotten the message: we’re paying attention.
and then, in the hum and the thrum of empty refrigerator shelves, and school buses that rolled to the corner before you had your shoes tied, in the numbing blurring cacophony of laundry piles, and deadlines, and forms that must be signed and scanned and sent back whence they came, we watch all our promises flitter away, like so many dried paper flakes, antiqued and yellowed and lost over time.
but then, we wake up one monday morning, and we find these words from a friend:
“I have learned one thing that I want to emphasize more strongly than I typically do: Your whole life can change in a moment. One phone call out of the blue, one consult from the doctor, one misjudged stoplight, one thoughtless word, one head turned in the wrong direction and boom. Life as you knew it will never be the same. I know this and I am living it right now.
“So this is my advice:
“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.
“If you are unhappy, figure out why, and put together a plan to change the circumstances causing it.”*
she goes on. brilliantly. and her words shook me to my core. sobered me. so sobered me.
because they slipped right into the crack in my heart that had been wedged wide open. opened because just the day before i’d been sitting at the foot of the couch on which a dear and deeply beloved friend was draped, under blankets, her head propped on pillows. her eyes as animated as they’ve ever been. even though she was recovering from brain surgery. even though she’d gotten news just the week before, news of the sort that does one of two things: crumples you into a ball, or rocket-blasts you into the clearest-eyed vision you’ve ever seen.
my friend went with the latter. she said, as we sat at her feet, that the whole reel of her life had been passing before her eyes, and she’d spent the weekend telling her beautiful children the few things she wanted them always to know. “i was making pronouncements,” she said, making it sound like she was some sort of moses on the mountaintop, bellowing into the lungs, and the hearts, of her kids the few short prescriptions she held for living a deep and meaningful life.
the sorts of words you might whisper as you watch your little girl, suddenly grown and deeply beautiful, slide into her bridal gown. the sorts of things you’d want to say as you cradled your just-born grand baby for the very first time. the very words that would spill from your lips as you watched your firstborn, or your last-born, walk across a stage at graduation. or, perhaps, the sorts of things you might say when you’re simply chopping carrots, side by side on an ordinary tuesday. or as you sit under a star-stitched sky, wondering, wishing, weaving the night with whatever it is that rises up from your heart.
my friend didn’t know anymore if she’d be there, for moments so big or so small. she didn’t know if she’d make it to those times when you squeeze the hand of someone you love, and proclaim the scant few words that say everything, when each little word is the vessel for volumes: i love you. i am so proud of this flight that you’ve taken, the way you’ve spread your wings, seized the moment, believed in the possible, fought for what’s right and what’s good. i’m so blessed by the whole of who you are. stay steady. go with God. do not surrender.
and then, after that sunday at the foot of my friend’s couch, where she covered the still-raw scar at the back of her head in her brown-hooded sweatshirt, came monday, and the words up above from my friend:
“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.”
and then tuesday, late tuesday, came word of another friend. another friend who’d been wheeled into another surgery. the news from that surgery was the sort that wakes up the sleepwalkers. the sort that rattles you, and leaves you gasping for breath. the sort you never expected to hear, or to read as it trickled in in an email, one of those emails sent to a small circle of friends. and you sit there staring at your computer, reading the words over and over. because tears are clouding your eyes.
and so all week, all i could think about was how the universe is hellbent on waking us up. and we’d do best to pay attention. long-lasting attention.
because friends whom you’ve known forever and ever it seems — friends whose newborn babies you’ve cradled, friends whose weddings you’ve danced at, friends whom you’ve held as they buried their mother or their lover, as they’ve struggled to glue back together their own broken hearts, friends you only ever thought of as invincible and unbreakable — those friends are facing the climb of a lifetime. climbs that involve hope upon hope. and unending faith.
and you can’t help but wonder why the universe thinks you need to hear it in double-time. and why, maybe, please, they couldn’t both be spared all the suffering.
and then, because life is ever mysterious and always breath-taking, you stumble across lines in a book you just happen to be reading for work. lines like these:
“teach us to number our days,” cried the psalmist. “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
or, saint augustine: “it is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.”
or annie dillard: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
and so you pull your weary and broken self off the couch. you rise to the occasion, the occasion called life. you cook and you freeze for your friend. you notice the snowflake tumbling. you fall asleep counting the mercies and wonders the day brought to you. you climb the stairs one more time when your little one calls to you, “mom, can you come talk?”
you live and you breathe, and you lift your friends’ struggles onto your shoulders. you vow to bend over the sickbeds suddenly before you, and moisten parched lips, and drink in pronouncements. you will fight for tight parking spots on the days when you drive them to hospitals. you will walk with those friends for as long as it takes.
and along the way you will make clear to the universe, and to the depths of your very own soul: these hours are precious, are sacred, and with all of my soul, i will fill each and every blessed one with the purest, clear-eyed attention to beauty and wisdom and all that is so deeply holy.
i promise. we promise.
with all of our hearts, amen.
just last night, as i was shuffling off to bed, i got a note from a dear friend of the chair, one whose tenderness is measured in part by the way she strolls the farmers’ market in summer filling bag after bag with organic lettuces and various greens for her decades-old hard-shelled friends, tortoises she’s tended for as long as 40 years (if not longer). and that dear friend, who also has tended lovingly to her aging papa, and to his rose bushes and his plot of home-grown tomatoes, she wrote to say that her papa had died this week. and so, for her, we send love, and deepest sympathies. as she wrote in her note: “it was the day i’d been dreading for 20 years.”
for everyone — and the someones they love — who is suffering, or struggling, or desperately straining to stay afloat, we hold you up in light and in love. in prayer and petition without end.
* the beautiful wise words above came from my dear friend who writes the beautiful blog, “on the wings of the hummingbird.” the link to her post is above…..
a question hardly seems proper, but knowing it will unearth bounties of wisdom: what woke you from the sleepwalking?