…To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
- Mary Oliver: excerpt from In Blackwater Woods
The great blessing of being 69 years old—which, as my grandson constantly reminds me, means “You’re old!”— is that you’re still here and alive. If you’re lucky—and as of this morning I am— you can still ride your bike up and down the hills of San Francisco, stroll through the park in search of January’s blooming magnolias, sit down at the piano and let the notes of Bach and Monk sing out from your fingers and then add some of your own. You can savor the chicken-apple quiche and kale salad, feel the warmth of your T-shirt laid atop the heater on a chilled morning, open the laptop and see what worlds might visit you today. You can do whatever work you need to do to see if you can improve your mind, open your heart, feed your Soul one inch beyond what it was yesterday.
But everything at a price and the longer we live, the more we dip into the black river of loss, watch things disappear into the fires of impermanence. While we’re all hoping to have a nice day and cherish our Pepsi moments, loss is by our side tugging at our sleeve and reminding us of fragility of the human condition.
This is on my mind because just as I was exhaling with needed relief at the good news on the political front, Capitol invasion and all, I was handed a flyer about the UCSF Hospital (two blocks from my house) and their plan to expand enormously and build a 300 foot tower in the part of town that the destructive sword of “development” has not yet reached. My part of town. A change that would be literally in my face for the rest of my life as a bad human decision. And the same day, a reminder of the news of construction planned at my school this summer that will also permanently change the face of the spaces I have so long loved and cherished as the places where miracles occurred.
And so thought after thought tumbled out of my lifetime’s losses with little sacred sites. My childhood home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. My high school moved to another campus a few years after I graduated. Antioch College almost closed, but even re-opened, my first dorm was razed, the cafeteria is an empty shell and in my most recent visit, the once-bustling campus was reduced to passing a sorry two students walking through a ghost town. My beloved San Francisco skyline permanently disfigured by the ugly wart of the Salesforce Tower on its face, which hurts my heart every time I see it. No getting used to it. And then all the movie theaters closed (before the pandemic), the restaurants and bookstores come and gone. And don’t even get me started on people.
Whether it’s the natural disaster of the hurricane, the inevitable rise and fall of businesses or (hardest to take) the aftermath of bad human decision-making, it’s all loss. And accepting that this is the price we pay for the gift of birth, we would be wise to learn how to paddle down that black river, even warm ourselves at its fires. In the poem’s stanza just before the above, Ms. Oliver writes:
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will never know.
How do you deal with losses in your life? Do you step back from loving things fully so you won’t be hurt by their disappearance? Do you hold it against your bones or do you bury that bone in some distant corner of the yard? Do you meet the loss of the world you thought you wanted and deserved by storming the Capitol Building? It’s a big subject.
As for me, I’m with Ms. Oliver. Giving thanks for the joy and privilege for having known and lived it, feeling the pain and grief of saying farewell, you learn how to let it go when it’s time. She herself lived on Cape Cod and every morning for many many years went into her sacred temple of Blackwater Woods and reported back to us the joys, miracles, questions and delights she found there. All the while living with Molly Malone Cook, the love of her life. And when her partner died, it was simply another funeral in a long procession of small losses—but of course, never “simple.” She found another lover—life moves on. And when health reasons seemed to suggest a warmer climate, she moved down to Florida. She tried to love the mangroves as much as the did the cattails around Blackwater Pond, but these things take time and she didn’t have much left. At 84 years old, she left us two years ago on January 17, 2021 and I still feel the loss of not having another book of her poems to look forward to.
So there you have it. Again last night, I dreamt of teaching the kids at my school—some part of me having a hard time letting go there! On Monday, I will go to an online meeting to protest the building of the UCSF tower (wish us luck!). I will keep giving money to Antioch College. Most importantly, I will savor each and every thing, place and person I love in this life, hold them all against my bones, knowing that either it will soon be gone or I will and do my best to let it go when the time comes, with gratitude and grief side-by-side.
And what is your plan?