Sit on the shore while everything else goes on by you, and get through the low-level anxiety and the boredom and the feeling that you’ve already seen it all. That’s a good time to learn. Here’s what’s there to see.
Everything we do and don’t do makes a wake, a legion of waves and troughs that pound the shores at the edges of what we mean, grinding away on the periphery of what we know. They go on, after the years in which we lived our individual lives are long passed. If we don’t learn that simple, devastating and redeeming detail of being alive—that what we do, all the jangle of our declarations and defeats, lasts longer than we ourselves do, that the past isn’t over—then the parade of our days stands to indict much more than it bequeaths. This is something that we have to learn now. Many of us count on our best intent winning the day or getting us off the hook of personal or ecological consequence. It hasn’t, and it won’t.
This is not true just of people with small boats on small rivers with nowhere to go but back and forth. Everything that is alive and moves in the world, all the winds and worms and wrens and willows leave in their passing some kind of similar wake too. All lives are lived in the swirls and eddies of what has gone along before them. Then, with a little time passing, we ourselves, our lives and all we hold dear, become what has gone before, a swirl or an eddy or both. Things might be diff erent, we could really learn something, if we could see our lives from the shore of Life: “Ah look, there’s my life going by, trailing everything I meant and didn’t mean, the end of it clearly in view.”
Sometimes it’s so clear: time carries everything toward what has been, toward the past. That’s where we’re headed, to join all who have come before. That’s the understanding of time that the word “obit” (as in “obituary”) comes from. It means “to go to meet.” The weather of time is blustery, reversing and scattering, but the past is the current of time.
Ah, modern life is a hard one to live through. We bank on a future. We keep our options open. We trade on potential.
In our busyness and in our spare time we are crafting antidotes to this current of time, little weirs to contain the past and what it means for us now. Sometimes we are on the boat, roaring down the river of our days, certain that they are our days. Sometimes we are on the shore, standing beside an old white pine that leans away from the roar and the churning roil of what we’ve done, its roots a little barer and washed clean of the earth that has given life all these years. When was the last time you stood anywhere for a moment and saw that what you meant and felt and how you loved and lost and what you said and held off saying might already have become waves lapping somewhere else, washing upon a shore you’ve already passed by, where someone else is standing, where an old white pine used to be… proof that you’ve been, sign of how you’ve been? It could turn into your prized possession, having learned the endurance of what you did, the willingness to know how it is, and the skills of living accordingly. The whole thing needs witnesses, though, people who will testify. That’s how it lasts.
What does it take to get us to stand quietly, like somebody under a clear midnight sky, taking all of it in, stilled by the staggering pitch and pull of life? Things going well doesn’t seem to help with this. Good fortune isn’t persuasive on this matter, and it rarely gives people pause. It’s when the news isn’t good news; that’s usually the time you fi nd the limits of what you can bear to know. Then, maybe only then, you might be able to see that the waves of what you believed and did and held off from doing will still have their ripples, long after you’re done. They outlast you. And this is tremendous news. When you are still enough for long enough, sometimes the river, the boar, and the waves and eddies—all of it—can turn into what you mean when you say, “My Life.” If you can do that, you can change things. Your life becomes a little friendlier to the world, to what the world needs from you. It becomes a little friendlier to the endings of things too.
This is an extract from Stephen Jenkinson’s 2015 book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and the Soul.