We Do Language

Chloe Anthony (Toni) Morrison Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey photo: © Timothy Greenfield-SandersWe die.

That may be the meaning of life.

But we do language.

That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison

mary-oliver It is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

Mary Oliver


The great thing about getting older is

that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)

angelouI’ve learned that

people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget

how you made them feel

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)




I don’t know about you, but I have several “quotes” posted around my study here, reminders of truths. The bits of paper come and go. It’s not that the messages are any less pithy or significant, but sometimes they are lost or supplanted. There is one that has been around for a long time: it’s getting a little grimy on the curled up edges of the paper. It is a couple of phrases taken from a Boston Globe newspaper column by the incomparable Ellen Goodman, about twenty years ago. I remember that she mentions Hilary Clinton, who was then approaching her 50th birthday and although I felt quite young, firmly in my forties, I was (and am still) always looking ahead. I crave instruction on how to move forward in life. Here’s what it says:

“Pick carefully and boldly…Triage what you want to do and what you want to quit. Live intentionally”

This quote has stuck around so long because I really want to triage, but some days, like today, it seems that I do not know how. Boldly choosing what to Quit? Living Intentionally? Yes, yes, and yes again. In my seat of ‘first world privilege’, I have the option of doing just that. But I dither, I falter, I regress to old habits, particularly the care of others and I live… unintentionally? Without clear intention and follow through, that is to say, as if I do not have the power of choice. Which rhymes with voice. Which is why I am writing.

Triage; I like the sound of the word; from the French, I believe. I generally think of it being used in a medical setting, as in the old television show M*A*S*H, where they would ‘assign degrees of urgency’ to wounded soldiers. In that setting, urgency was closely correlated to triage. Looking in the dictionary, ahem, I find that the first listing says: “the action of sorting according to quality.” First note to self: urgency is not necessarily a part of triage. Second note: it is an action, which means it is something to practice and develop as a skill (see quote below from Ursula LeGuin.) And third note to self: the word ‘quality’ refers to the things that give me pleasure and satisfaction, as in ‘quality of life’.

I’ve written before about mindfulness and these last few days about heroes and inspiration. Put it all together and I see that I want to slowly, but persistently, sort through the various parts of my life and do some clearing out. Doesn’t have to be dramatic, just little daily choices NOT to do things that don’t nourish me and are not my responsibility. In the space that opens up, I can try other things. I can try imagining other things. Goodman’s quote goes on to say: “Leap and the net will appear.” Take risks and try new things, has been my interpretation of that advice, which lines up with another quote on my desk, this one from Mary Oliver:

“Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As I age, time seems more limited ahead of me; heck, it seems more limited every day! That is why these questions, these exhortations seem even more important to heed than when I posted them, decades ago. I will leave you with this note from Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. The book is about the craft of writing, but I found this section to have a wider meaning:

“We can use and practice [behaviors, actions] until – the point of all the practice – we don’t have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills. A skill is something you know how to do.”

NaBloPoMo November 2015

Post Script: D’ruther

I think I was a bit negative in the first part of Sunday evening’s blog post. The “Should/Don’Wanna” inner dialog is so familiar to me and perhaps to others as well. But what I didn’t include, in fact I removed it from the title line, was: “D’ruther”. And that omission is important because that’s what was really stumping me. The question is/was: “What would I rather do, instead of the Shoulds?”   It’s all well and good to whine and rebel against the (perceived) Shoulds with a petulant ‘Don’Wanna. It’s childish, but perfectly understandable from time-to-time.

But the grownup me, the one that has learned its okay to refuse some Shoulds, some of the time, (see 4/2/14 post…) is involved in a larger life lesson about choice. What do I want to do? To quote the esteemed and astonishing poet Mary Oliver: Tell me what it is YOU plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Might be the best question ever. But… Here’s the thing; at age 60+ it no longer seems like a question of planning, at least not long term planning. It’s about today and now.

Today is when my wild and precious life is happening, and choices abound. Forgive me if I have previously shared this quote from another esteemed writer, Ellen Goodman (formerly of the Boston Globe). Some years ago, I believe it was on the occasion of Hilary Clinton’s 50th birthday, she wrote these words: “Pick carefully and boldly… Triage what you want to do and what you want to quit… Live intentionally.”

Live intentionally; that’s what I want to do. Goodman’s essay also included these words of encouragement: “Leap and the net will appear.” Hmm. In my last post I stopped my self at the brink, before plunging into the dark abyss. But if I rotate my self, my perspective just slightly, the view is quite different. I see that I am on the brink of a new choice; standing on the ledge of possibility, not hopelessness. Really, why bother with hopelessness at my age? Isn’t existential angst for the young? Elders want to fly, or at least leap.

So, its time to face the D’ruther question head on. When I was unexpectedly and unwillingly unemployed five years ago, I presented myself with three possibilities: Study homeopathy, Start a business or Write. Sometimes I think that I have been spinning in circles ever since. However, as I whirl around, I haven’t drilled a hole in the ground. I’ve traveled a small distance. I think the famous dervishes also travel across the floor; and I’ve read that their spinning takes them into an altered state of consciousness.

I know how to write. I have always written. I cannot imagine my life without writing. I have (reluctantly) been working to acquire and strengthen some necessary skills: self-care, along with diminished care-taking of others; the urgent and delicate art of triage; saying ‘no’ and pushing through resistance (sometimes known as discipline), to name a few. I’ve even experimented with ‘reading until I am bored’, something I did not think was possible. These efforts have helped me to clear the space, literal and hugely figurative, to make writing a focus.

Now I seek the magic to maintain a belief in my self worth, that I have something to say and the ability to say it. Or when I occasionally (ha!) lack that strength, to rally my stubbornness and write anyway. I do know what I want to do. I know. I’m just scared.