When I was in college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry. It was both luxurious and exhausting, like mapping a geography that constantly changed. That was when I first encountered the work of W.S. Merwin. I don’t remember in what year of college I met Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” but it was love at first read. The first line of the poem is inscribed into my memory, where it hangs out in the same room with lots of other firsts (stitches, swimming ribbon, kiss, love, broken heart, broken bone, etc.)
For the Anniversary of My Death
By W. S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
There’s something about year’s end for me that highlights the collision between the inexorable march of the calendar and the concentric, infinite whorls of life giving way to death giving way to life. Maybe by the end of every year I just notice this collision more, as though the previous 11 months have worn away the insulation on my nerve endings. Whatever the reason, by November and December, I’m moved to tears more, I feel like I hear and feel everything more acutely, I notice more stuff that’s in my peripheral vision, and words, phrases, and melodies tumble around in my head like too much laundry crammed into a dryer. When I slow myself down to sort all this out, I feel mostly bewildered, as though I’m sifting through a great pile of mismatched socks.
So I’ve been quiet here for the past couple of months.
And it’s not like I suddenly feel I have something really profound to share today. I just need to be reconnected with this discipline, and with the small and mighty community of people who come here to share, to seek, to find, to laugh, to cry, to wonder, to ask, “Where in the world are we (or is she) going?” That is, after all, why I come here, too.
A little more than six weeks ago, I was in a spectacular—and still unbelievable—car accident. While I was sitting alone in my car, stopped at a light, a man half my age drove into the back of my car while he was travelling at least 45 mph, according to the police. There was no squealing of tires to warn me—he never even hit the brakes. For me there was just deafening noise and intense impact, as if a bomb had gone off in the trunk. When the dust cleared, I peered out my windshield to see a car lying on its side in front of me. It was the car that had just hit me.
I couldn’t process any of this at the time, and I still can’t. All I could manage to say when I stumbled out of my car in a fog of shock was, “What the…What just happened? What??” Wave after wave of onlookers, police, and EMTs, approached me to ask if I was hurt. “I…I don’t know. Um, I think I’m okay. I…What just happened? What the??” As it turned out, the only significant damage was to the cars involved, and the other driver’s insurance rates. I was extremely lucky to sustain merely an addled brain, a badly bruised knee, and a little whiplash.
I frequently find myself reflecting on my luck, particularly at the end of the year. This year, my reflections on my luck were accompanied by the relentlessly looping soundtrack of the car wreck, with a steady drumbeat of newsflashes that made my heart hurt:
- A couple of weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend—a college classmate and a woman I have admired and adored for more than 30 years—has some kind of cancer that her oncologist isn’t even sure how to treat. She also recently lost her dad to leukemia.
- On Christmas morning, as PW and I were walking into church a couple of hours before the service started, we encountered a woman standing outside Emmanuel looking at the various signs on the doors. “I’m looking for an Episcopal church,” she said. “I just found out that my husband of 34 years has been having an affair for the past three years, and I need to find a place to sit in church with my fine young son.” Sure enough, they showed up for the service and the son sat with his arm around his mother the entire time.
- This past Friday, a long-time friend of my parents and college classmate of my mom’s died after a long ordeal with cancer. Barbara Higdon was classy, brave, brilliant, and one of those trail-blazing women on whose shoulders generations of other women stand, many of us without knowing it.
The day after I heard about my friend’s diagnosis, I was walking through Chinatown and was frozen in place by this graffito:
There are many more heart-hurty news bits in the mix, but those three, plus the graffito, best capture the variety. As I was sitting in church on New Year’s Day, in the stunningly beautiful Lindsey Chapel, the low winter sun came streaming in the windows in such a startling way that many of the people in the congregation turned around and looked up. The room and the congregants were bathed in a brilliant, other-worldly light.
Meanwhile, Bishop J. Clark Grew (ret.) was preaching about the currency of hope, and how this year’s familiar Christmas narrative reminded him that the divine rarely breaks through in our lives in ways we expect. As if on cue, the words “for the anniversary of my life” floated across my mind’s eye in an unbroken line.
After my initial reaction (“What the heck? THAT’S not how Merwin’s poem goes!”), I felt like a dog resisting the pull of the leash. I wanted to investigate these words “for the anniversary of my life,” to spend a long time sniffing them, tumbling them around in my brain.
I don’t know if “for the anniversary of my life” and the graffito’s message “She knows she’ll never die!” were the divine breaking into my consciousness, but I’m open to the possibility. Maybe the openness to the possibility is the whole point. This morning I felt driven to pull one of my favorite books off the shelf: William Stafford’s “You Must Revise Your Life.” This slim little paperback is a combination magnifying glass and life raft when I encounter life’s mysteries. I mostly don’t want a decoder ring for life’s mysteries; I just want new ways to look at them without drowning.
The book is only 118 pages long, and in my copy I have folded over dozens of pages, underlined many passages, and bracketed entire paragraphs, usually putting stars next to the brackets. At the bottom of page 81, I have a couple of sentences bracketed, with a star, and above it I wrote, “This is it!”
“[T]he product is expendable, but the process is precious…The process is the process of living centrally and paying attention to your own life. Surely that’s worth doing. If you don’t, who will?”
In the sense that we all have an expiration date, the noun-ness of our lives is expendable. It’s the living itself — our verb-ness — that’s precious and unbounded by time: the ways we choose to live, whom and what we choose to notice, to share, to explore, to accompany, to hear, to carry with us. Sometimes we write, and sometimes we are surface on which others write. Barbara Higdon’s physical matter is dead, but the essence of her life cannot be extinguished; I’m still discovering ways in which she is written into me.
Like many people out there writing our lives from one day to the next, with and without words, I find myself beginning this year in wonder and mourning. I don’t know the ratio of one to the other, because, honestly, I feel filled with immeasurable amounts of both. Which brings me to another little poem, this one by a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand.
May your year ahead be so bold and brilliant. May your wonders be deep and your mournings be shared.
Dark, Dark night.
The trees. The river.
One more day;
For so slow goes the day.
Before the end
the world goes round
The world begins the day.
The night has gone.
The day for the end of the world
once more begins.
Once more begins the sun
Slow, so slow.
Go on, world, live.
Begin, sweet sun.
Begin, sweet world.
The people live and die.
People die alive
By Lynette Joass
From “Miracles: Poems by children of the English-speaking world,” collected by Richard Lewis.
Here’s a song for this post: Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Breaths.”