Guess what!? Austin Kleon reads obituaries too. (Yes, I have mentioned him before! I loved Steal Like an Artist and meant to write more about it) He describes obituaries as near death experiences for cowards. I read obituaries. Not the ones of famous people but the ones about the heroism of ordinary people recounted with love by those they leave behind. I usually cry. As Kleon says in Show Your Work, they aren’t really about death; they’re about life. In a wonderful newsletter this week, Maria Popova (Brainpickings) quotes illustrator and author Maira Kalman saying: the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble. I so agree with Kleon who says reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live. For me, verbally acknowledging each morning that all things end, all things change reminds me to not take for granted for one second, the preciousness of life.
Like many people on planes last week I was more nervous than usual. I refrained from sending an email to family from the airport telling them who the authorities should check if anything went wrong. That would have made them more anxious! (But why would you board a plan for a 9 hour flight with no hand luggage? Travelling light obviously down to an art! And what was that bandage around the hand hiding? Surely not just a wound. Ah, the blessing of a vivid imagination.)
I sensed a collective relaxing of shoulders when we did all finally land. Sheepishly exchanged grins that indicated our slightly embarrassed relief. I’ve been on planes where the passengers applauded when we landed. This time the relief was not audible, but just as obvious.
Lately the realities of life and death emphasise the value of living rather than existing (and go straight to Brainpickings for more on this. Gosh Brainpickings is good. Have I mentioned that?) I think I’ll buy A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen. This resonated so powerfully for me:
It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen…the colour of our kids’ eyes…it is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking. I was reminded of that wonderful paragraph in Toni Jordan’s Additions where she says:
Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at a sunset. [Mind you, that can be very lovely!] Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in a deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them COUNT, your could miss it. You could miss your whole life.”
As I was about to board the plane, and seconds before I had to turn off my phone, shots of my grand-child-in-utero, already besottedly adored, came through. I allowed myself to feel incredibly happy acknowledging how profoundly vulnerable this made me. I savoured those wonderful moments, cried, showed the man next to me and touched the dear face that appeared on the screen. Quindlen says:
Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. [my emphasis! Can’t wait. We do great ears in our family] Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.