For Monday, March 21, 2016:
“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
A pastoral training workshop for potential caregivers and chaplains among persons living with AIDS made a big impact on me, and one facet in particular has stayed with me for almost 25 years.
During one of the first exercises of the day, the trainer asked us to write down, in no particular order, ten things we believed we couldn’t do without. He told us we were going to return to that list throughout the day. Interspersed among other exercises and meditations, the trainer took us back to our lists, and each time we had to make a decision: we had to choose which item, in order of importance to us, we would cross off next.
The purpose of the exercise was to simulate the critically shortened lifespan of most people living with AIDS at that time, the height of the crisis, and the personal losses they and their loved ones experienced during the course of that terrible disease.
As human beings we are exposed to loss on a regular basis. Whether it be failed relationships, misdirected business ventures, disappointing expectations, decreasing health and/or physical abilities as we age, unfulfilled or displaced dreams … By the time we reach a certain age, it’s likely we’ve known one or more of these and other losses many times over.
This was certainly true for almost all the workshop participants. None of us was a neophyte in that department. What made things different, though, was the personal vulnerability each of us had to face in the constrained time frame. Six hours isn’t nearly enough time to deal with all that loss, however metaphorical or hypothetical it was, and, needless to say, we were all in tears – visible and hidden – by the end of the day.
As emotionally wrenching as that exercise was for me, it’s one I repeat for myself on occasion, even now. Sometimes I do it on purpose, as a reminder. Other times I’m forced to remember the process yet again by the losses that living entails, and the fact that we don’t always have the luxury of choosing which one comes next.
Soon after that workshop, I had to start facing my own health issues more directly. Congenital problems were coming together enough to be diagnosed and treated up to a point. A year or so later I faced open heart surgery. In my first attempt at the AIDS exercise on my own, I wrote a poem that faced the grief and fear, the real and potential losses of my own mortality head on. Even if the surgery was successful – and it was – my expected lifespan back then was ten more years.
At some point in the six month recovery process, I compared my workshop list and the poem and they were remarkably similar. There were few hypotheticals left at that point, but now I knew I could hope again. I knew I could make at least some choices.
Number ten on my lists was still family and friends. Number nine was writing. Those two won’t ever change. I wish friends, family, and colleagues, from back then through today, had had the opportunity to choose. Rilke was right, though – the roots of writing are so firmly in my heart that sometimes, if I’m lucky, loved ones come alive again in words seen and unseen.
As of this week I’ve exceeded the then-projected lifespan by twelve years now. Thanks be to God, I’ve been blessed with family and friends and writing every single day of those years. I hope you all who read this are similarly blessed, for those roots go deep and grow wide, sometimes to the farthest reaches of the earth, to places known and unknown.