On Being Careful with Your Life
1. On April 4th, 2016, at an AWP offsite event called 'The Making of the American Essay,' American essayist John D'Agata was said, by one of his mentees, to be a teacher who "made students feel taken care of." During the Q&A, I asked D'Agata what it meant, to him, to take care of his students. He answered in two parts. One: Give them the sense that they should have faith in their own work, and Two: Test that faith. He explained, We have to be honest with each other as an act of care. It helps to have people read you in uncomfortable ways.
2. Be careful, my friend gently scolds me last week, her voice a mother's, when I move too fast in her kitchen. We are cooking dinner together and I have just sliced my finger open trying to dice tomatoes. Slow down, she says, and I can't help but hear it for days.
3. At a gathering for our dear friend and classmate who had, days prior, made the transition into her next lifetime— brilliant poet, teacher, and eternal student Doug Kearney said to us: Care is not the same thing as control. Care has to come from a place of love, he explained, not from an expectation that it can change someone or something. Huddled around a bonfire, our faces stinging from salt, our feet buried into the sand, we heard him say it again, in a voice that made us knew that he wanted us really understand: Care is not the same thing as control.
Usually, when the Universe wants to tell me something, I hear it three times. I could call this coincidence or magic. I choose— because it makes my life easier—to call it the latter.
What sustains me through life's many traumas is a deep faith in the idea that everything happens for a reason. It would be foolish to call this idea truth. There is no way to prove it. But believing in it with no evidence other than faith makes the pain hurt less, and so it is what I choose.
Having experienced three sudden deaths of loved ones in the past year alone, I have come to understand grief as some of the Universe's most powerful and bitter medicine.
Indulge me, for a moment, with a metaphor: Imagine a great, big house. This house has many floors. An attic. A basement. Contained, inside this house, is all of your infinite wisdom. Certain keys unlock this house, like love, like courage. Sometimes, you can stand in the front yard and look through the windows to get a small glimpse of what's inside. Sometimes, you're on the front porch with your ear pressed against the wall. Grief, however, kicks the front doors down. Lights a match to the curtains so that you are forced to run inside screaming, trying to gather everything you can.
A few weeks ago, after learning of Prince’s death, I wrote, You can't feel grief and not be forced to ask yourself, "What do I need to do to not feel this way anymore?" I called death an "opportunity to step your fucking game up." I suppose —because here I am again with my body full of this familiar ache — that I should elaborate.
Grief is an loud and unapologetic wake up call. A cosmic opportunity for us to run, panicked, inside of our own wisdom to gather whatever we can to make sense of things. I am convinced that this state of critical inquiry—a deeply engaged attempt to make sense of that which is senseless—is a scared space to be in.
This urgent desire to shake off your own suffering— the heightened sense of needing so desperately to put your own healing into motion— is a sacred space that we, as we maneuver through this lifetime's many traumas, cannot not take for granted.
When someone you love takes their own life, you can't help but ask yourself, What could I have done to make them want to stay? You know it not your fault, but a small voice inside your mind blames you. This voice says, You should have checked in with them more often. You should have asked how they were doing. You should have loved them more fiercely. You should have listened to the things they did not say. You should have paid closer attention.
These "should haves" can destroy you. And they will, if you let them. But guilt, I have learned through drowning it, is nothing more than ego in sheep's clothing. Guilt is a frivolous emotion. Instead of spending all that energy punishing yourself for the things you should have done, the more productive question is: What must I do now?
With the doors of my heart flung open by grief, I am compelled to figure out what it really means to be careful, to "take care" of ourselves, of each other.
Care, I think, is all about paying attention. It's about paying attention first, and then responding accordingly. Being careful is a kind of close listening. It's about opening yourself up to hear what you have not been able to hear—about looking closely for what you have not been able to see.
Death makes the truth so obvious: How brief this life is. How un-guaranteed. Though I am haunted by this lesson's unforgiving clarity, I am made brave by it. I choose to believe that my friends deaths — and the grief that has followed — is the Universe's way shaking me out of whatever sleep I've been content to stay in to say, in that unmistakable cosmic voice, "You literally. Do not. Have time. To waste."
I feel a sense of urgency to make this brief human experience expansive. To live a live so full that it transcends this human form. I feel a sense of urgency to manifest the kind of life for myself that I wish Emi could have lived— one full of generous love, gentle care, and abundant joy.
When I start to give my life the same care and attention I wish I would have given my loved ones when they were here, it becomes clear to me that so many things have to change.
I return to this quote by James Baldwin time and time again: "The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see."
These words seem to make their way into my life for various reasons at various times, but this go around, I've heard it anew. The greatest act of care—of deep, radical love—is consciousness. To be careful with your life is to become aware of how you exist within it.
If you ask yourself: If I die tomorrow, would I be happy with my life? and the answer is anything other than an enthusiastic yes, it's time to make some changes.
All those things that you would have done differently? Start doing them. All the things you know you want to change? Start changing them. Pay attention, and respond accordingly. Life is too short for anything other than this kind of diligence. If we do not keep our hearts and ears and eyes open wide enough to hear the truth — if we are not cautious with our own lives—we might reach the end of our time here having not lived fully.
To my dear sweet brilliant friend, thank you for this reminder. I hear you. Loud and clear.
Life is a delicate and precious thing. We have to be so careful. We have to be so, so careful.