On Gratitude for the 'Poignant Enormity' of Life


In the middle of last week, I opened my Facebook page and saw at the top of my feed one of those robot-generated recommendation posts:  "It's your friend's birthday, don't you want to acknowledge them?" 

The post included a large, beautiful picture of my "friend's" warm, open face and threw me immediately into one of those uniquely Facebook binds - I really enjoyed this woman the one time I met her and think we could actually be friends if the circumstances ever permit and I like following her work as an art teacher for kids and have rooted her on through her recent weight loss and lived vicariously through her recent trip to Europe, the pictures from which showed her standing in front of gorgeous landscapes and glowing with happiness.  But, do I really know her well enough to wish her a happy birthday?  Does a single in-person encounter constitute a basis for sending a virtual birthday card?

I decided to give myself more time to overthink it, and starting scrolling down.  Just two posts later was an announcement from this same friend's husband with the news that she had suffered a massive stroke two days before and was not going to survive.  Her body was being kept alive because she was an organ donor, but she was gone.  Just like that.  At 51 years old.  

Just like that.  


I spent the day thinking about the kind of world where vibrant women who spend their time showing small children how to paint are randomly, suddenly snuffed out, while certain other disgusting cretinous sub-human orange-tinted individuals get to live.  

And I thought about the two beloved family members of mine who, just weeks ago, and on the same day, lived through two very different near-death health crises.  I thought about how happy I am that they both survived and how grateful I am to all the people who participated in saving their lives.

And I got a little aggressively loving toward my husband and daughter that night as we as we filled our plates at dinner time, a maneuver that involves the three of us in a jostling sort of minuet within the confines of our too-small kitchen.

I also remembered the title of a writing workshop that my friend Estee had told me about in one of our recent weekly conversations:   "Don't Die with Your Book Inside You."   Estee said she thought the facilitator meant the title to be humorous, "but, it's REAL Sara."  Yes.  It is real.  And I felt like she and I - and maybe you - should probably be writing much faster.  We all should be doing our thing with greater intention and urgency, because time is short and life is finite and tomorrow might not come.

And one other phrase that Estee introduced me too has not left my head in the days since my Facebook friends' death.  She was telling me about the very famous (probably known to everyone but me) book by Jon Cabat-Zinn called "Full Catastrophe Living" about mindfulness strategies for managing the stresses of life.  That phrase "full catastrophe living" apparently comes from Zorba the Greek, but here's what Kabat-Zinn says about what it means to him:

"...ever since I first heard it, I have felt that the phrase 'the full catastrophe' captures something positive about the human spirit's ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within it room to grown in strength and wisdom.  For me, facing the full catastrophe means finding what is deepest and best and ultimately, what is most human within ourselves.  

...Catastrophe does not mean disaster.  Rather, it means the poignant enormity of our life experience...The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux, that everything we think is permanent is actually only temporary and constantly changing.  This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything."  

So, that's what we're dealing with, all of us, the "full catastrophe."  And there's nothing to be done about it, except to try to stay alive through it - fully alive, awake, present, aware, and engaged in the "poignant enormity" of it all.

And THAT's what makes me want to also share with you this quote from Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses.  My sister Shannon sent this to me twenty years ago at a time of crisis in my life and it has been a personal touchstone ever since.  To me, it says everything about what matters and what doesn't and is a perfect expression of what aliveness actually looks like.

"When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn’t matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady’s slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other its color hitting our sense like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move.” 

And so my wish for all of us this Thanksgiving week is a blessing born of this Zinn/Ackerman mash-up: 

may you stay alive in your life,
may you keep showing up in all your eager clumsy awkwardness,
may you care more than you reasonably should and express your love as best you can, even if it comes out weird
may you embrace the poignant enormity of our full shared catastrophe,
may you apply yourself with wholehearted urgency to the creative projects only you can do, and
may you grant yourself an extra dollop (or two) of whipped cream on your Thanksgiving pie,
because you are human and you need your strength.