Some things happen only once. Yet we remember them forever.
Some are painful. But many are joyous and teach us how to live.
Here are some of those for me.
The Rest of Your Life
A few days before my mother died, she was lying at one end of the long sofa. I was sitting at the other. Quiet was always easy between us. And usually out of our quiet a question would emerge that took us down new roads. On this day, frail, she spoke clearly, her voice still deep and resonant.
‘Honey, there is something I would like to ask you.’
She paused and looked at me. She was both far away and wholly present. She spoke deliberately, warmly.
‘What would you like to accomplish with the rest of your life?’
The question – Its clean lines, its boldness, its generosity – disquieted, excited me.
I did not answer immediately. I remember feeling that more than anything I wanted to answer as an adult. An adult on the inside. It did not matter that I was 38 years old on the outside. I felt 12. And I wanted to grow completely up in that moment.
I wanted to honour her with the truth. I wanted not to think for a second about what she might want me to say, or what might please her. I also wanted to answer her with serenity. And I wanted to step across the sadness that sat between us, the knowing that she was dying, but the refusing to know, too.
Eventually I said, ‘I want to make a difference in the world. I think that poor thinking, copycat thinking, lies at the heart of what is wrong with society. So I want to help people to think for themselves well. Because maybe if people start truly to think for themselves, they will find better answers and ask better questions. I agree with whoever said that the answer is only as good as the question.'
I breathed out. I had said it, even if it did start to sound a bit teachy at the end. I smiled. So did she, her respect penetrating my fear. We were quiet again.
Then tenderly she asked, ‘And how do you hope to achieve this?’
Startled again, I thought carefully about her question and knew again that I had to say what I really thought, even if it might seem naïve to her. I did not have a plan yet. But I decided not to worry about that.
Finally I said, ’I hope to step back from all I have learned and read in my life and discovered in my teaching and counselling, and ask myself, as if for the first time: “What does it take for people to think for themselves?”
‘And then I want to gather people together to do their own thinking about things important to them and maybe to our world. Over time I hope to observe afresh what needs to happen to keep them thinking for themselves. I have decided not to be afraid of being proved wrong. I know this will take time, and I have no idea what kind of living I can make from it, but that’s what I hope to do.’
I was shaking. I breathed again. She was quiet for a long time. Then she said, ‘Well, Honey, that is a wonderful thing to do with you life, and if you do it just the way you have said, I think it could work’.
I wanted to cry. Mostly, I think, from how big the moment had been, how indelible. From wondering how she knew to ask me those questions. And from noticing that she had just done for me what I wanted to do for others.
I was learning her.
I still am.
Breath of Life
Mother died when I was 38. Afterwards I travelled 1700 miles every two months from Washington to New Mexico to visit Dad. He and Mother had loved each other for 60 years. He was in a kind of pain I could not fathom. He also was attempting, even to his now adult children, to be both mother and father. He worried that he didn’t know how to do that.
I decided, though, that on the next visit I had to tell him a difficult truth, something I had put off since before Mother died. Something I felt was sure to upset him. I had to tell him because my life was changing.
When I arrived, I spent the first day talking about everything else. And the second day. And the third. Then the night before I would leave at dawn the next day, I knew I had to open my mouth and say just enough to keep me from turning back.
‘Daddy,’ I said, ‘I need to tell you something.’
He frowned. My heart hammered as if trying to nail me to the sofa and stop a single other word. But I got up and walked to the chair next to him.
‘What is it, Honey?’ I heard criticism, and I had not even begun.
‘Peter and I are getting a divorce,’ I said. ‘We have been living apart for two years.’
He lit a cigarette. He was shaking slightly. Then he lit another. He did not seem confused by that. I thought maybe he had lit the second one for Mother.
He looked at me. He was silent.
I took a breath. ‘I have fallen in love with a man who lives in England,’ I said. (I hoped his reverence for Churchill would help me out here.)
‘He is Christopher,’ I said, ‘and I have finally found happiness.’ Immediately I heard how ‘Hallmark’ that sounded and wished I could start again.
I began to cry. He began to cry. But he kept listening.
Knowing I was losing traction, I lunged into the next sentence. ‘For twenty years,’ I said, ‘Christopher was in an intimate relationship with a man. Christopher and I are in love. We don’t know where our relationship will go; but I know this is the relationship of my life.’
There. It was all out. I didn’t move. I ignored the tissue in my pocket, not wanting to clear the tears for fear of seeing his disappointment, his anger.
He didn’t speak. Eventually, he looked down.
Then slowly he put out one cigarette. Then the other. He wiped his tears.
And then he looked into my eyes. For a long time.
Carefully, gently, slowly he said, ‘Nancy, as long as there is a breath of life left in my body – I will love you.’
The seconds that followed re-sculpted my life.
And for these 36 years since, I have been contemplating what must have happened inside his listening. His respect; his knowing beyond his knowing; his re-thinking 83 years of accumulated lore. My dignity; my courage; my coming home; my thinking; my reclaiming myself.
And the beginning of a grownup relationship between us.
It was the pace, the stopping, the slow slowness that spoke most to me then. You taught me this. In the months that would become the unthinkable months of your dying.
Until you walk at someone else’s pace, someone’s slow pace whom you love, someone whose life you are listening to as fast and hard as you can because it is leaving, you don’t know what balance is. When you are used to going fast, your balance comes from one foot quickly following the other. But when you slow down, your balance has to come from within. At first you fall forward because you are used to gauging where you are by where you are going. But when you go slowly, it is the present second and the inside of you adjusting to this present second that tells you where you are and keeps you from falling.
This is important. In fact, I speculate that the injunction to rush, to have our eyes intensely on the future, is a wholly destructive directive. It may even be a predictor of war. Because when we rush, we loose the truth, the way details of grasslands and stars smear as we drive by at 90. It is easier to make war on each other if we can’t see each other up close.
But when we go slowly, we notice. We have an easier time listening, understanding, getting the truth of each other’s lives.
The injunction to rush is skewing our sensors. We cannot hear where we are. Are we Yeats’ falcon?
In our cells, where experience can overtake genetics as a code, we become the requirement not to savour. We become the command to move on before the sun is fully crimson. We become the injunction not to wait for our child finally to say what we can see in her eyes but cannot demand out. Not to wait until a person's quiet finds the precise, texturous phrase we could not have formed for them in a million years and says it, clearly. We become the command not to be, but to go.
Do wait. Do go slowly, our souls say. But faintly. Their voices too tiny, too early, too much a discountable echo to heed. Even to hear.
The world -- maybe not every world, but certainly my world and, if you are reading this, probably, certainly, your world, too -- is in us requiring the next thing rather than this thing, even in our puny attempts to have a Saturday, to bathe, or to pray, or to set seeds in soil.
Please can we stop; can we speak at half the pace, walk as if we were royalty, watch, open our eyes just to see what we can see when we look around, having not moved?
And can we learn this before it is a road to someone’s death? Can we just decide for ourselves, today, to walk slowly of our own accord because it is a good thing to do, and can transform?
Can we, between steps, be still?
Now and Then
24 July 2018
I am taking in the earth as it moves from Texas to New Mexico. I think of Mother and Dad, of their decision to make that move, too, with you in their arms. I am grateful for both. I am grateful for you. I find myself because of the ways you know yourself. I keep learning you.
This New Mexico, this step from caprock to plains, then to rivers and mountains and mesas and cliffs, and always the vast blue, blue, blue skies, the ones Mother needed and loved and kissed with her insistence on being there, nowhere else — this New Mexico is my heart’s beat somewhere before it beat at all. Rapturous now in Christopher’s (and my) England, I return each year to a primal sweetness for me. I run with my arms open to its simplicity and its stories of pain and of love over centuries.
I carry you with me.
5 May 2021
I am 75 now. You are 81. Mother and Dad and the big house, the willow, the vacant lots abutting and stretching our own, the winding terracotta porch, the jacks and jump rope, the pretending in PEO taffeta gowns to be on a ship from there to here are over. Only disappointment greets if we return. Returning takes us to now, not to then. Returning desecrates. Recalling resurrects. Recalling is enough.
So I recall Clovis, but I return to Santa Fe. I return to its now, its cerulean, its adobe, its native genius allowing me their worship, noticing earth touching sky, forgiving me and my kind, or maybe not. I stand under that sky and ask nothing more of this luminous and liminal second.
There I return, happily, to now.
Yesterday I remembered Willa Cather. Her singular take on New Mexico, a simple, sad, struggling occupation she imagined. Priests, sent to save, savaged even the soul, the sold. Beautifully told, heartbreaking – a tender euphemism for barbarism.
But this I loved:
“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth is the floor of the sky. The landscape we longed for when we were far away, the thing all around us, the world we actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”