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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Sense of Urgency

I was grateful to spend Thanksgiving day with my lifelong friend Judy and her large extended family, including many young people, both in college and college bound. I don’t really know these kids all that well, chiefly as their great-aunt’s friend who they may see every couple of years.

But they are good kids and polite and so put up with my questions about how they were doing in school and what they hoped to do once they graduated. The usual questions non-familial adults might ask the young, I imagine.

And, of course, once I heard their answers, I couldn’t help but offer some unsolicited advice. After all, I’ve been around the block several turns now, including the academic one, having been adjunct at several universities over the years.

But all the while I kept trying to imagine myself at their ages—late teens/early twenties—wondering how I might have responded to the advice, even from a reasonably knowledgeable source. Would it even have registered? And if it did, would I have given it more than two seconds’ worth of my time?

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, I stumbled on a book review in the New York Times by Heather Lende: On Living, by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. (Link below) Here’s how Lende describes the book:

“On Living” is part memoir, part spiritual reflection and part narration of tales told to Egan by her [hospice] patients.

Each of those “parts” of the book interests me, as a writer and a teacher especially, but also as someone thinking about how to use these remaining years of what’s turning out to be a blessedly long-ish life.

Ah, so here I am, a bona fide old person, now seeking the unsolicited advice I would’ve ignored—or even scorned—while in the midst of my late teens/early twenties. Funny how that works.

But, lucky me, this particular bit of advice from Chaplain Egan definitely struck a chord, especially the sense of urgency:

“If there is any great difference between the people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it’s this: They know they’re running out of time. They have more motivation to do the things they want to do, and to become the person they want to become. . . . There’s nothing stopping you from acting with the same urgency the dying feel.”

So, if like me, you’re looking for how to stay motivated in your life—to “do the things” you want to do and “become the person” you want to be—this book might be worth a read.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Beauty of the Living World

Decades ago, I bought a little red Birthday Book—the official title—that includes “astrological notes and selected quotations.” I’ve used it over the years to note the birthdays of friends and family, going through it each month and marking the dates on my calendar. Pre-Facebook, this meant I was sure to send a birthday wish their way and/or make a date for lunch or dinner.

Recently I’ve become aware of the number of people I’d put in the book who I’ve lost touch with or who are no longer living, the latter including my father and step-mother (my mother having died in the mid-1960s); both sisters-in-law; and three pretty significant friends, all younger by a couple of years than I.

And so what was once a way to celebrate their lives—these people so close to me—is now how I mark their deaths.

Earlier this month, I had my own birthday, and, for some reason, it felt more like a solemn occasion than a celebratory one, despite the fact that the Cubs won that night and I found $40 earlier in the day.

I think the solemnity is related to those Birthday Book names that are now among the deceased, especially as that list is only going to keep growing. You can’t be old, even young-old (65-74), and not face that reality.

And so when a friend emailed me the following poem a couple weeks after my birthday, it struck a chord. Or, as I wrote in reply: “Thx for sending, especially as these exact thoughts have been coursing through my mind lately.”

by Stephen Dobyns

The awful imbalance that occurs with age
when you suddenly see that more friends

have died, than remain alive. And at times
their memory seems so real that the latest

realization of a death can become a second,
smaller death. All those talks cut off in midsentence.

All those plans tossed in the trash.
What can you do but sit out on the porch

when evening comes? The day’s last light
reddens the leaves of the copper beach.


Yes, and so what can we do with all this loss, but celebrate the beauty of the living world—and of those we loved who were once part of it.

NOTE: "Recognitions" by Stephen Dobyns from The Day's Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2016. Reprinted with permission on The Writer’s Almanac website.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Telling Our Stories: A Postscript

Five years ago, while listening to Terry Gross interview author Tom Perrotta on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard Perrotta say: “There are these dueling [human] impulses to…remember and bear witness and to forget and move on.”

Five years, and I still think about those “dueling impulses.” So when we want to write down our personal stories, how do we decide which to remember and which to forget?

Some people might opt to forget and move on from their setbacks, losses, and hardships. Others might want to record them as a way to move on from them. They see “bearing witness” to those darker, sadder stories as a kind of release, a way not to stay trapped in a story they no longer wish to inhabit.

Or at least be defined by.

A very common example is when we experience a bruising breakup, divorce, or death of a significant other. Do we want to record that story? And in the process remember and bear witness both to the love and the loss? Or do we want to forget that particular experience altogether?

These questions—no matter the experience—have often come up in my workshops. Someone will say, “I don’t want to write down that story. It’s too painful.” Over the years, anticipating it, I begin each workshop by reading Dr. James Pennebaker’s ”Flip-Out Rule,” which I describe on page 24 of my book, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories. I introduce the rule with: “Each of us is the final authority on when or even if we tell certain of our stories.”

Which is to say that we are the author of that decision. Just as we are the author of our life’s story, including how we see it unfolding from this point forward.

NOTE: I am forever grateful to Dr. Pennebaker for giving me permission to use his Flip-Out Rule in my book; it originally appeared in one of his books, Writing To Heal.