When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
– Mary Oliver (“When Death Comes”)
oh pray that what we want
is worth this running,
pray that what we’re running
is what we want.
– Lucille Clifton (“we are running”)
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day”)
Over the last few months, several people from my past have taken their leave of this world. Most of them were people I was no longer close to or even in touch with, yet we had a history together – some even as far back as early childhood. Some were former students or colleagues. Several were younger than me. For the most part, I don’t know the circumstances around their departures. It was just their time to go. However, their passing has caused me to reflect more deeply than usual on why I’m here and take stock of where I am in my journey.
From the outside looking in, life seemed to be a struggle for some of these people, while for others, it seemed to be a celebration. Remembering them, I’ve been pondering my own relationship to life. Bottom line, how am I showing up to life, and how does that feel?
Each of the quotes above speaks to me in a powerful way. Much of my life has been driven by the desire to do more than simply visit this world. Something huge inside of me won’t let me sit on the sidelines and watch. I can’t be a spectator of life. I live with a deep and unquenchable thirst to make a difference in the world in some way – to engage with ideas bigger than me – to live into my greatest potential as someone who believes he has a gift to share. My ongoing fear has always been whether or not what I offer is good enough; my ongoing challenge has been to let go of how others might judge my attempts. Perhaps you can relate.
When I first read Lucille Clifton’s words, they took my breath away. I, too, can lose myself in running after what I think I’m supposed to be doing. Over the last year, I have found a deeper peace with the calling I follow. Yet even as the peace gets deeper, the wolf’s growl sometimes gets even louder. We have frequent conversations, mostly at 4:00 am. They go in cycles – it will be quiet for a while, and then our early morning encounters resume.
Yet with each new cycle, we are finding a deeper respect for one another. I’m accepting that ours is probably a life-long relationship, and he is accepting that maybe I am doing the best I can. I’ve stopped wondering when the wolf will leave me alone, and now accept that he will probably travel beside me for the rest of my days. My friend Able says that all we can do is be the love that we are. It’s become my mantra, especially before walking onto the stage or stepping in front of a new group. I’ve spent a lifetime preparing for where I am now. I’m ready. I’m learning to trust that if I will just “be the love that I am,” the rest will take care of itself.
I’ve also slowed down – a funny thing to say as my work continues to expand and my calendar is more full than ever. Yet I’m not running any more. I’ve learned to be curious and compassionate, both with the wolf and with me. Our relationship is getting easier. We mostly walk now instead of run.
I appreciate the idea of a “wild and precious life” more with each passing day. I don’t know that “wild” is a word that anyone would use to describe my life! I’m not exactly the dare-devil type or one who “throws all caution to the wind.” However, I’ve made choices along the way that some have thought risky. I’ve followed the callings of my soul, even when it meant leaving secure career paths or ending relationships that, in truth, were taking us both down. I’ve chosen a path where I am seen by many, and that can make me feel very vulnerable at times. As I look back over my life, I’ve done a few things, particularly in my younger years, that I’m not particularly proud of. Yet there are many more things that I am proud of and celebrate. I’m not a man of regrets. Each experience brings its own gift. What matters is to recognize the gift and learn from it. I continue to learn how to be in relationship with life.
Without doubt, I recognize more every day that life is precious. What makes it precious are the relationships we share with others. Life happens in the relationship space. Connection, meaning, purpose, and fulfillment all happen in relationship to others. The most valuable gift we can give is to meet one another in our authentic fullness, our integrity, and in our love. And in the end, all we can take with us as we cross back to the other side is the memory of who we have been and the kinds of relationships we fostered.
Our lives may be long or short or somewhere in between. We can’t know how long we have here. The gift of that “not knowing” is the reminder that all we can do is make each day count toward a life worth living. That looks different for each of us. How about for you? When it’s all over, what will have made life worth living for you?
P.S. If you want to further explore how you “show up” to life and how to make the most of each moment, a next step might be my little book, The Power of Your Presence. It’s a meditation in a book. It just takes about 20 minutes and is a great centering exercise to use while waiting for an appointment, sitting on the train, or for daily meditation and reflection. An audio version is also available as an mp3 download.
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