Just about a year before the virus landed, Dianne and I moved to Vashon, one of the islands of Puget Sound. On many days I work in the woods around our house, clearing away dead wood or fitting chunks of basalt into shapes you might mistake as either the ruins of what’s falling away or something new emerging from the earth.
Most days, I also work with clients who themselves are clearing out the deadwood. They’re trying to discern whether all the dis-ease in their lives signifies an old structure past its time or foreshadows a new one trying to emerge. And from everything they tell me, letting go of what’s falling away isn’t any easier than figuring out what’s to come.
It’s evident, too, in the wider world. After all, we live in a time of five crises: the pandemic; our unsustainable economy; the chauvinisms of sex, race, nation and faith; our weaponized politics; the ever-warming climate. Each involves the falling away of structures or identities or ways-of-being that have been centuries and even millennia in the making. And the precise shape of what’s emerging is not at all clear.
In my own life, the deeper into it I travel, the more conscious I’ve become of my horizon. Like that other one, out in the world, it used to seem that no matter where or in what direction I went, the horizon of my life moved with me, always keeping its respectful distance. But now, it seems fixed, and I draw closer to it every day. There’s a structure here, a structure that once bestowed a comforting location in life, and it’s falling away.
As I write this, something one of my mentors told me comes to mind. He said what distinguishes us from everything else alive was that we know we’ll die. It’s not that other species don’t know death but, as far as we can tell, we’re the only ones that know death will come to us. We know we’ll lose every one and every thing we love, although it takes some time before we actually believe this. He told me it’s in the relationship we have to this understanding that our humanity is found.
Do we seek to protect ourselves from all this loss? Do we become parsimonious in our loving to lessen the pain? Or do we bow down to that pain in gratitude for the loving?
Now, I don’t pretend to be the supplicant I want to be. Even when I squint ferociously, it’s hard to make out the shape of what’s coming. And this squinting is evidence of a “need” to know the shape of things before tolerating what they cause me to feel.
In the culture we’ve made, exploring the impact of mortality on our loving is as rare as it is vital. That it’s hard to talk about these things, with more than just the mind, before we reach a certain age is not surprising.
But at some point, when the heart and the body join in this understanding, a need arises to have a different relationship with our living. One in which what we believe, what we know and what we do cohere.
This is why I fit one stone to another in our woods. It has to do with finding patterns that please my mind and heart, of course, but it’s also about spending much of my time there on my knees. And it’s why I search, with my clients, for the evidence of what we yet might be.
It’s been said that we each have two lives: the second one begins the moment we learn we only have one.