I don't want to be a drag, but I've spent most of my time over the past few months thinking about a close friend - my age - who is dying. Oddly, as you may know if you've had this kind of experience, once you've accepted a loved one's passing there is almost as much awe and wonder in the process of making this inevitable transition as there is fear and sorrow.
As we begin 2011, the brevity of life is especially clear to me, and because of this I am more committed than ever to really living every moment I have on this planet. This has brought me several surprises. For one thing, I discovered that my personality is more cat than dog. For years, I've pushed myself to be more social, more tail-wagging, more ingratiating. When I'm really honest, I wander off by myself almost all the time. I turned down several delightful New Years Eve invitations and went to bed at 9:00, not because I wasn't in a festive mood - I was - but because a peaceful, restful new year was far more enjoyable for me than a noisy gathering. If this makes me the most boring human being in the world, I do not care.
My friend had lost the ability to swallow food or liquid, so all her liquids come from an IV (intravenous drip). She says she feels very thirsty, and as I sit with her, my mind goes often to the poetry from Mary Oliver's book, Thirst:
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half perfect?
I will keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished...
Which is gratitude,
to have been given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleep dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
It may seem like a buzz-kill to sit in a hospital room quoting poetry. But don't knock it until you've tried it; the "buzz" that often comes over me in this place between life and death is powerful and amazing. When I sit still and read, not moving at all, my friend begins to breathe more easily, and tells me that her pain and her anxiety diminish. Scientists now know that one human brain focused strongly and calmly "entrains" other brains, broadcasting peace that travels heart-to-heart, requiring no action whatsoever. The shortness of life, which we all discuss, but which is very clear to me at the moment, makes keeping and spreading a joyful peace more crucial than ever before. Let us keep our minds on what matters, which is our work, which is astonishment and gratitude. From this quiet magic comes a power for all other new years wishes to come true.