“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”
-Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2005)
This week, my favorite living writer died. So did a high school classmate.
Mary Oliver was 83. Matt Riker was 51. His life was snuffed out by the same illness that took my mom from us nearly five years ago. In November, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Later that month, he visited Dana-Farber and learned his illness was incurable.
According to an article in a local newspaper, several years ago, Matt was very unhappy with the way he was living his life. He decided to turn things around and devoted his life to helping others. The more he helped, the better he felt. On a similar note, two years ago when he was borderline diabetic, he took up running, lost a lot of weight, and got into really good shape.
The point being: When he realized he wasn’t living the life he wanted to live, he found the determination and courage to make changes and turn things around. He even went back to school and received his bachelor’s degree last year. By the time he was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, he felt at peace with his life and continued to focus on helping others because that’s who he had become.
Matt’s story is a real wake-up call. His transformation is inspiring. When you don’t like the story you’re living, you can do something different and change it.
The weekend before he passed away, there was a celebration in his honor. What a gift to have a celebration of life before someone passes away! It was an opportunity for everyone to say goodbye (even without saying it) and thank-you for happy memories and a life well lived.
I hadn’t seen Matt since high school. After he learned the nature of his illness, I reached out to him, and we shared a memory of being in a choral group together back in high school. I had to drive my son to Albany when the celebration was taking place and made it just in time. Matt looked in my eyes, said my name, gave me a hug, and a few moments later, two companions were on either side of him helping him make his way out of the building so he could rest.
After he left the celebration, a classmate who had gone running with Matt in the fall expressed disbelief. Such rapid physical decline is hard to wrap your head around. When I saw him at the celebration, he appeared as my mother did a week or two before she passed away. I did not expect him to make it to the end of the month. He only made it a week.
When an acquaintance your age or younger passes away, it wakes you up. It might inspire you to appreciate your life and your loved ones more. You might step back, take stock, and consider what’s most important and whether you are living your life in harmony with that.
I realized this week that I’ve gotten a little off-course and lost sight of what’s most important. I’ve been too busy and haven’t been spending as much time in nature as I need to. Haven’t had much time for those who mean the most to me. My heart yearns for more nature connection, more writing, more photography, and more quality time with loved ones. These activities feed my soul. They are my true Work.
What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live? The answers to these inquiries are within each of us, in our heart center. Our heart is a compass that keeps us on course if we allow it to guide us. Its wisdom helps us to gauge how closely our life is aligned with our true Dharma. Then we can make some course adjustments if need be.
I believe that however long or short our lifetime is, it’s exactly as it should be. Even when death seems to come too soon or too suddenly, there are no accidents. If it’s your time, the universe will make sure you are in the right place. In other words, beyond the personal, senseless tragedy of loss, there is another level on which all is well. These dense bodies we live in only allow us to see a portion of the picture.
The thing is, we don’t know when our time will come. There are things I still want to accomplish, and I’ll bet the same is true for you. Things I don’t want to leave undone. When a friend of mine published her first book, she exclaimed, “I can die now!” That’s what I’m talking about: Don’t die with your song/book/etc. still within you.
Matt’s death awakened everyone his life touched. It inspired me to think about how I spend my time and why, and to take inventory of the Big Picture, just like he did several years ago.
Mary Oliver passed away four days after Matt, on Thursday.
Thursday morning, I HAD to sit on the riverbank (despite the cold weather) as the sun rose and listen to the music of the delicate plates of ice sailing down the river and colliding with piles of other shards. It’s one of my very favorite songs.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t resist the call to be in nature, astonished and filled with appreciation for the visual poetry surrounding me, though I wasn’t aware yet of the significance of the day. All I knew at the time was that it felt like the first real breath I had taken all week, and I could barely feel the cold because I was doing something that set my soul on fire.
When I heard the news that evening, it all made sense: Her soul was passing through. I wonder what she would have scribbled in her notebook about that morning’s frozen splendor on the Hudson.
Spending time on the river’s edge that morning and learning about the two deaths only a few days apart served the same purpose: They awakened me from the trance of routine and reminded me of what’s most important and what I need to make time for. What I did make time for until a few months ago when I took on another part-time job. (And next month, I will add yet another thing to my plate when I start a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher certification program, which I have yearned to do for years.)
I realized I need to spend more time steeped in gratitude on the water’s edge or elsewhere in nature with my camera in hand and my senses wide open. More time listening to what drifts through the air and bubbles up from within, and taking dictation. More time developing the services I’m trained for and feel passionate about. The Universe has delivered some very clear and consistent messages about moving forward with that NOW, not later. If not now, when?
I had to admit to myself that I’m doing too much. My schedule is too full. Even though I enjoy and appreciate everything I’m doing, something’s gotta give within the continuum that spans from enjoyment to the deeper pull that sets my soul on fire.
Those whose deaths jolt us out of the trance of daily life remind us to make time during our “one wild and precious life” for what is most essential. To not look beyond our own heart to discern what that is.
To get to Work.
© 2019 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, Reiki practitioner, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.