Last term I took a class called Wellness and Spirituality Through the Life Cycle. It was a good class. I learned a lot about how people in different spiritual traditions think about and cope with illness, death and dying. It was also depressing. Maybe it was that it came on the heels of Medical Family Therapy, which is another relentless 10-week focus on illness, death and dying. Ten weeks got me down, but 20 weeks had me hitting some pretty strong existential angst: My parents are getting older and are going to die one day. So am I. My grandfather is 91 and doing great but was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Man, am I going to miss him one of these days.

One day in Wellness and Spirituality we had a guest lecturer–Jonathan Stemer, a transpersonal therapist from Looking Glass, the clinic where I now have an internship. He read us a poem from Mary Oliver and a quote from Rilke. Both of them hit home. It’s hard to describe exactly how, but something about the brutality of death and the possibility of an open mind and heart in the face of it. I try to live an open life, but I think that a stance of openness can be an illusion if not in sight of hardships like illness and death. It can be a game of frivolity or superiority – charming but weightless.

“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

And here’s the Rilke quote:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

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