May 2, 2017

May 2, 2017
Mary with collage and clutter

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nine Lives

Yesterday morning when I was putting on my right shoe, I noticed new wrinkles on the inside of my left knee. Not deep wrinkles. Gentle waves of wrinkles. Their appearance reminds me again that I am aging, which means that I am dying, and throughout the day I thought about the many lives I've lived in this one life.

There's the first life, the one I don't remember. I spent those first years growing from a tiny dot to a not-as-tiny person, being born (what an adventure that must have been), learning to drool my first words (adored by my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles) and to crawl and even walk. (My first brain tumor was beginning to grow then, too.) I must have been well cared-for in those early days, since my latter days have been mostly joyous ones. (The importance of those early days is one of the things I've learned in the School of Social Work.)

In my second life, a life I remember in snatches, I discovered that when you rub two bricks together, you get sand, that some kids threw their valuable toys in the creek for reasons I could not imagine, and that a train would flatten a penny if it ran over it. I learned the word "probably" and began to learn the uncertainty of the truths I thought I saw clearly before me.

And then there were my lives marked by elementary school, middle school (my ugly duckling life), high school and college (my beauty queen life), my twenties (my first teaching life), thirties (my life divorcing my wealthy doctor husband and joining with my not-as-wealthy teacher girlfriend), my next life with brain tumors, the swine flu, pneumonia, food allergies, and a nasty car accident, and now my life post-brain tumors (I hope), with disabilities and a slower way of moving through the world: a life of gratitude for all the lives I've had, and especially for this one. This life, I notice, is my ninth life. I'm glad I'm not a cat.

As I mulled over my wrinkling skin and my many lives, yesterday, my friend Joanna sent Stanley Kunitz's poem "The Layers," a poem that resonated with me. It begins:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

I wonder if through these many lives, I shed my skin like a snake, though the core of who I am remains in tact, or if I'm more like those wooden dolls inside of dolls: looking similar as I get bigger, but ultimately separate beings. 

When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, does it maintain its essence of caterpillarness or does it lose that life on the ground?

Am I evolving or am I reincarnating, life after life in this one life? Certainly, I look back on my younger selves (especially the ugly duckling and coming out selves) with great compassion. 

What if each of us could remember previous lives, an Israeli remembering a life on the Gaza strip, a prisoner remembering life as a prison guard, a liberal remembering life as a Tea-partier?

Would we live in a more compassionate world?

My mom says that I was a born an old soul, and sometimes, I glimpse my previous selves, like shadows just beyond my vision's periphery. Sometimes I glimpse my previous self in the people whom I see on the bus or walking down the street. They seem unaware of me, and I wonder what it was like to be them. 

And often I see someone whose life I have not lived and cannot imagine: what would it be like to be a person who seeks fame and fortune, or one who rages with unseen demons, or one who tortures ants for fun? 

What would it have been like to touch Jesus's hem or see visions and lead the French into battle or trade or be traded in slavery?

Are those lives that I have in store, or is there some end to this being and not being?

So much to wonder, but mostly for now I am delighted to live in this skin, in this life. I feel lucky, but perhaps this is just one of my passing lives. 

As so often happens when I think of living and not-living, I hear Walt Whitman's words: "And to die is different than anyone supposed. And luckier."

How did he know? Is it because he had seen so much of death as an ambulance driver during the Civil War? Did I also glimpse death when the doctors split my skull and my cerebellum to remove that big nasty tumor? 

Did that brush with death leave me less afraid and more alive?



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