This Is Not Beautiful

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.   

Mary Ann and me sitting side by side and having a laugh during a writing circle at the Summer Solstice Retreat.


I've neglected this blog over the last few weeks, not for lack of love for it but because since August I've facilitated  two big writing retreats and finished a book (in addition to my full-time writing job and usual mix of freelance gigs). My third writing retreat in three months and the last one of this year, Mystery of Yin, starts tomorrow, up on the beautiful and rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world. 

So this is not going to be beautiful. It's going to be quick and to the point. Kind of like the sort of sex you are thrilled to settle for when time and energy are short but desire keeps calling. (More on that in a future post.)

For now, I want to say that last month, one of the writers at the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat died of the cancer she had been long battling. Her name is Mary Ann Johnson and both in the way she lived and the way she died, she moved me. And many, many others. This blog has two of her guest posts, here and here. It changed me to know this woman, and to briefly call myself her teacher.

That leads me to the next thing I'm burning to say, the thing that is the fiery drive behind this post, which is that death is inevitable. I imagine you've heard it before.  We only have a little bit of time to do the things we envision ourselves doing. When Mary Ann contacted me last March about the Solstice Retreat, she told me she had stage 4 cancer and that the retreat was on her bucket list. I told her that was a tall order for me, but that I would do my best to live up to that high standard. Part of what Mary Ann taught me is that you can't always wait for a better time, and you certainly shouldn't wait until you have only a small amount of time left (Mary Ann expected to survive quite a bit longer than she did, and was not certain her cancer was terminal last March).

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

My daughter Lillie in November, seizing the moment.

The week that Mary Ann died, I bumped up one of those things on my to-do list--"apply to a writing workshop"--from somewhere in the muddy bottoms to the very top. I had my eye on a Tin House workshop for fiction writers serious about publishing, and I sat up late one night and finalized my sample and application. I'll find out soon about the outcome, which doesn't actually matter. What mattered to me then and now is that I applied instead of thinking about applying.

I also started making a point of being more present with the people I love, however I can, as often as I can. And let me tell you, I am no guru at this. I hope you are more masterful than I am at putting your phone down, walking outside, blocking Facebook (thank God I haven't figured out Twitter yet), and scrolling Ebay. Honestly, if I could harness the sum total of my time wasting I could easily have saved the dolphins by now, or at least learned to speak dolphin. Or, at minimum, Spanish. But instead, I ordered another amazing anti-aging potion from Amazon.

So lately, as I said, I'm trying harder to be present with these people I love like crazy (just ask them about the crazy part). And by present I mean not just more texting (oh, the love-hate texting god/demon), but also in other ways. Sitting next to my daughter Lillie, the only one of our six kids who still lives at home, when she is doing her homework on the couch. Calling my husband instead of sending another email. Running to meet him at the door when he arrives at night after his brutal commute and grabbing him where it counts. Sending handwritten letters to my daughter Sophie. We email constantly because she writes for me as a subcontractor, but because she lives in Florida, we don't get a lot of those heart-to-hearts that happen when you're under the same roof or at least in the same city. So I started writing the letters. I just included them in  little care packages (sending more of those lately, too), and at first she didn't say anything about them. But then, she did, and it was good. Very good. I've been trying to take this initiative with all six of our kids. While also reaching out to my friends more, even just taking a minute to say "I miss you" is better than nothing, but I'm making a point of setting up lunch dates and impromptu coffee meetings, too, instead of allowing November to pull its usual prison warden shenanigans (oh, couch, you are so tempting).

My day job is editing and writing at the University of Minnesota in the School of Public Health. The route I walk to get to my office is a long and winding maze of buildings, and the door I first enter is that of Fairview-University Medical Center, a hospital. Every day that I go to my office, I see people in their hospital gowns and wheelchairs, their tall tree things on wheels with the bags and tubes and IVs coming and going. I see couples holding hands and I see people with pain and fear etched on their wide open faces. Sometimes I see people on gurneys, as vulnerable as anyone can ever be, and sometimes I see people running through the hall in the searing hope that they are not too late.

I don't want to be too late. I know I am going to die, you are going to die, we all are. We don't know how or when, that's uncertain. In fact, all of life is uncertain, every single minute of it, except death. Death is the one certain thing. The uncertainty is the beautiful wild ride of today. Now. This minute. 

Doris Lessing, who died this week at age 94, said, "Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible." 

Bam. Thinking about death (and not fearing death by the way, that's not what I am talking about) can frame the way we see our lives. Accepting the inherently finite nature of our time here in the "soft animal of our bodies" casts a clearer light on the series of seemingly irrelevant decisions we make each day. Decisions which cumulatively come to define us. As Annie Dillard so aptly put it, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

So as I promised, this wasn't beautiful. It took me twenty minutes to write without stopping, a primitive attempt to capture a series of seemingly disparate but in fact finely interwoven thoughts I've been tracing the contours of for the past several weeks.

And now, I'm all fired up for the last Elephant Rock Retreat of 2013. It's been a huge honor to work with many of you this past year, and I hope to soon announce the offerings for 2014. In the meantime, keep writing ... or start writing. It doesn't have to be beautiful. Something mediocre now is better than nothing later. As Cheryl Strayed says, these useless days will add up to something. But that doesn't mean the clock isn't ticking, because it is, and today is the one day we know we have.  So start now.



By David Whyte

Enough. These few words are enough. 
If not these words, this breath. 
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life 
we have refused 
again and again 
until now.
Until now 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change   covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."    which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. 

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Change covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence "Before I die I want to ..."  which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration.