life: the one-time offer
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?
Thanks for the reminder to live wide open!
Sent from my iPad
Barbara, your beautiful writing this morning prompted me to write a love letter (again!) to our daughter who is getting married in May. What a lovely moment that was! Thank you for your inspiration.
oh, dear mary jo, i cannot think of a more beautiful response. bless you so much…….and bless her and the beautiful days that unfold between now and that wedding……
It seems no matter how many times I am awakened, somehow I still sleepwalk until the next time. How I wish and try to change. You have poured out your aching heart here so beautifully and we all promise to hold it tenderly, lovingly. You always find the right words, bless your sweet heart. Yes, those in-a-moment blindsidings are never forgotten … the phone call after a car wreck; the news the baby is a month early; the cancer has progressed … as M.E. says, it’s time to figure out the unhappiness and change the circumstance. May it be so. And for you and your friends, prayers upon prayers for all that is needed to get through. Love you.
where ever would we be without our sisters, who know and share how deeply we mean to stay awake (suddenly i think of gethsemane), and how we shudder when we find we’ve fallen asleep yet again. what will it take, we shout from the depths of our spirit? so here we sit, nudging each other, nudging ourselves. stay awake, stay awake. do all you can…..xoxox
When I looked up from reading your story of heartaches and hope, I spied a bright red cardinal outside my kitchen window. A few moments later, mama cardinal flew into our snowy yard. And then they sat side-by-side perched in the crabapple tree.
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”
I too know several women struggling with devastating health news. The kind of news that takes your breath away and empties you out so all you can do is pray and hope and be present.
I will pray your words of prayer and petition for your friends and mine as I sit in our darkened old church tonight for Taize prayer.
love that you are sitting in a darkened old church praying Taize prayer, slow prayer, yet another practice deeply pondered in the book i’m reading for work, “The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice — How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave, and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life,” by Michael Yankoski (W Publishing, 2014).
That book is on my list!
How timely your post is as I contemplate my life this week and all its craziness. Things I was struggling to control. Knowing full well that God is in control. And I allow the crazy to steal my joy sometimes.
So in my heart I pray for forgiveness and try to steer myself back onto His path. Another day with baby steps and remembering to count the Blessings.
Thank you for sharing. What a gift your friend gave you. That wake up call before a real wake up call could come. And prayers for you and your friends and for the sisters friends who are dealing with health issues and losses.
The sun is shining big and bright today after a few days of snow. Its beautiful outside and I am going out to try and wedge the gate open in the snow to let my horses out to run on the snow pasture.
i love the image of a gate being wedged open, and horses running free. it seems an apt metaphor for some of what we’re pondering here. bless you…..
I wish I could say I have had that wisdom plant all my years, but it has only recently started growing buds with a few small blossoms. I am beginning to believe that this will be the gift of these later years (a gift unto itself). I have lost some deeply loved people and watched as friends struggled with tragedies…and each time thought ~ I will live, speak, love with conscious wisdom. And then, the miniscule, the grand take over and I am off away from that garden and running with a kite flying in the wind and not a care in the world. This is not a bad thing…taking joy whenever, wherever it comes. However in my sixties, my garden has grown so large, that a numbers of flowering shrubs and plants can only be on the wane. Yet that one slow, slow growing wisdom shrub is finally taking off with a new bloom for every other flower down. In the end I will have the biggest most gorgeous shrub filled with beautiful blossoms and that will be what I have left and may I have the time to appreciate it and share it. Oh Barb, will be holding you (and many others around the table) as we work our gardens. It is hard, hard work despite the joys, so with love we support each other.
amen to your wisdom plant, the one that blooms breathtakingly on its own terms, in its own time and rhythm. the one we tend with our attention, and our keen letting in of what matters. and, yes, we will hold each other up along the way, knowing that all of us only harvest that wisdom by taking life as it comes. unfiltered. full-throttle. even when we’re certain it will leave us in shatters….
Oh bam, what a gobsmacked week you’ve had. Last week I had a moment in the car that I swear was my parents grabbing me by the lapels and shaking me into knowledge that yes, there is a better home waiting. I am sending prayers up there for your dear friends.
oh, honey, that sounds mighty powerful. mighty mighty. i’d imagine the moment was followed by tears in that car….xoxox
This post is a poem and a prayer, a message of love…
We must always choose hope and live in the present moment, aware of beauty and life’s preciousness.
We wake to the world, we live our days, we die. But I do not feel that each day we live shortens our sum. Here is a quote I adore, one that strengthens and upholds me:
Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy? Of what relevance to an individual is such a number? Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised? Must I check off each day of my life as if I am subtracting from this imaginary hoard?
No, on the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived. And with each day, my treasure will grow, not diminish.
I’m keeping the needs of your beloved friends – as well as the needs and special intentions of all who quietly gather here at the chair – close to my heart today. May we all be lifted up into the light; may love show us the way.
Prayers of hope and healing. Peace to all hearts~
amy, wise amy. i stand humbly and wholly corrected (on the matter of the sum, and subtraction). you’re right. i was looking at that glass from the wrong direction. i love the robert brault above. i think you might have turned me around. i love the notion — the bedrock belief, if you allow it to sink deep down where it belongs — that each day is an infinite vessel, to be filled beyond measure. and thus, day upon day is infinite plus infinite. i admit to having been looking the other way, with the sense that i was MAKING each moment matter.
it’s endlessly fascinating that our truth depends on how we choose to look. and sometimes we need someone to pluck us up by the shoulders, move us to another spot on the chessboard and say, “now, look. look from here, do you see how it’s a whole new picture?”
thank you for the pluck….
thank you for all the wisdom and love gathered here at this table…
Dearest B, you’re more than generous to thank me, but all thanks must be forwarded to dear Robert Brault, who plucked me up, spun me around, and showed me the inestimable treasure of days lived.
As you so beautifully put it, each day is an infinite vessel, to be filled beyond measure. It’s so much lovelier, so much more whole, to add than to subtract, isn’t it? The wisest and most wonderful of equations. ❤