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I’ve loved this poem for a long time. Linda Pastan’s idea of an almanac of last things inspires me in a way that a “bucket list” does not!

The Almanac of Last Things
From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair–and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.

I know there are folks who don’t want to contemplate the end of life, or any sort of loss, before they get there. For them it drains joy from the present moment.

For me, it’s the opposite. Every reminder that there will be a last this and a last that — including a last moment — deepens my gratitude for this moment and helps me “be here now.”

So a “last thing” has several meanings for me. It’s among the last things I want to give up. It’s among the things I want to be holding with gratitude and grace when my last moment comes. And it’s among the things I will need to let go of at the end, so it’s important that I appreciate it fully right now.

P.S. The ocean and the full moon are in my personal Almanac of Last Things. Both of them say life in a big way to me. And both are on the long list of blessings for which I can only say a heartfelt “Thank you…”

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When Death Comes

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 measle-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’s 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.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

Mary Oliver

How a Poem Helped Save a Suicidal Teen’s Life

Fred Barbash July 13, 2015

aiden kingwell
Aidan Kingwell. (Courtesy of the Kingwell family)

There are whole books devoted to demonstrating the power of the written word to soothe pain and heal the tortured mind, the most prominent perhaps “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.”And there are studies of the brain showing how the healing happens. There’s even a name for the practice of prescribing literature for its rehabilitative effects: “bibliotherapy.”

But for a deeply personal example — powerful and searing in part because of the youth of the writer — the experience of 16-year-old Aidan Kingwell of Oak Park, Ill., who read a poem that helped convince her life was worth living at a time she doubted it, is hard to match.

Kingwell wrote about her experience with the poem as an entry in the 2015 Library of Congress “Letters About Literature” contest, in which high-school and middle-school students from across the country write letters to authors who have influenced them. Entering the contest was an assignment from her English teacher, Mary Marcotte, at Fenwick High School, a Catholic school in Oak Park.

The choice of topic, a brave one, was Kingwell’s. She addressed her “letter about literature” to the poet Mary Oliver about the poem “When Death Comes.” (Go to page 10 to read it. You can hear Mary Oliver read the poem here.)

“I had been depressed since age ten,” she wrote in her “Dear Mary” letter, “but had never received any treatment. My mind was very dark … I was someone who was simultaneously terrified of dying, and yet obsessed with the very idea. I was also suicidal, which is a state of being that I cannot well describe, because there are not words that can describe such utter loss of hope, such bitterness and pain and unrelenting sorrow. I wanted to end my life so badly that most days I could not find one single reason for living.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Kingwell said that so many of the feelings she later understood to be depression were easy to gloss over as teenage angst. She felt sad because she had switched schools — totally normal. She was withdrawn because she felt she didn’t fit in. She didn’t fit in because she dressed differently — like a boy. And she was bullied. Middle school is rough.

But inside her mind was rougher. She said she grew isolated and began to feel “hopeless.” There was “not a lot in my life that told me it was going to be okay,” she said, just “a quiet relenting acceptance that things are bad and they’re not going to get any better.”

That was about the time her English teacher assigned her Oliver’s poem. The poem was dark, Kingwell’s teacher told her, but ultimately a poem of hope.

“I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” is the final line of the poem, and the one that seems to have resonated most with Kingwell.

In her letter to “Dear Mary,” she explained: “When you spoke of not wanting to have simply visited this world, my own world turned upside down. I began to think about how horrible it would be to have only been a visitor, in the way that you said; to not have made my mark on the world, to have only passed through with no real substance. I thought of a life lived entirely in absence of beauty and amazement, a life barren of love or excitement or laughter.

“I began to realize that that was what suicide would do to me. I saw that life was fast becoming my own. I saw killing myself would take me away before I even had the chance to make something of my life. Suicide would eliminate my pain, yes, but it also closed any doors of possibility that I might have still open to me; doors that may lead to happiness in my future.”

In her interview with The Post, Kingwell chose not to answer when asked whether she ever attempted to take her life.

The poem did not suddenly turn everything around. But it seems to have opened her eyes and given her what was missing: namely, hope.

Still, at 14 she went off to summer camp in Vermont. “I would have anxiety attacks and start crying for no reason. I would feel this absolutely crushing sense of badness and hopelessness. For a few hours, I’d be okay and then it would start all over again,” she said in the interview. “When my parents came to pick me up, they realized it was something more.”

That’s when she started seeing a psychologist and, ultimately, going on medication.

Poet Mary Oliver reads one of her poems during the lunch session at The Women's Conference in Long Beach, California October 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni  (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT POLITICS SOCIETY)

Poet Mary Oliver in 2010. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The dark moods still come back, she said, and when they do, she returns to the poem, “When Death Comes,” which is framed on her wall.

She’s “in a better place,” she said. She acts in plays and competes in lacrosse, in a “quiz bowl” and on an engineering team. She’s got her eye on college and the future.

The fact that she won first place nationally in the Library of Congress competition is beside the point, as is the fact that she doesn’t know whether Oliver has ever seen the letter.

The point, she said, is the “epiphany” she had at the tender age of 13 — and the message she now wants to send three years later, at the less tender age of 16.

“I was thinking about kids who might be now like I was when I was 13,” she told The Post. “I wanted to speak directly to them, and want to say directly to them: ‘Please, I know how hard it is to be accepting of yourself when no one else is … Please keep fighting. It will get better. Things will get better. I promise.’”

And she knows, as she wrote in her letter, that “I am still alive today,” in part, thanks to a poem.

The Light for Another

BY PARKER J. PALMER  (On Being)

In times of deep darkness, we not only need light — we need to be light for one another. That’s a message we must take to heart as we find ourselves lost once again in the all-too-familiar darkness of America’s culture of violence.

Who better to deliver that message than Mary Oliver, in a powerful poem that re-tells the story of the Buddha’s last words. Before he died, she tells us, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd” and said, “Make of yourself a light.”

We are the frightened crowd the Buddha looked into as he drew his last breath. We are the people who need to be light for one another.

There are many kinds of light. There’s the light that allows people lost in the dark to find their way home. There’s the light of compassion that comforts everything it touches. There’s the light of truth-telling about ourselves that allows us to see what we are doing — or allowing — that has helped bring this darkness upon us. There’s the light that shows us the way forward toward a better world. There’s the light of courage to walk that path no matter who says “Stop!”

No one of us can provide all of the light we need. But every one of us can shed some kind of light. Every day we can ask ourselves, “What kind of light can I provide today?”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the senior vice president of Repair the World, a national organization that seeks to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. (RNS) On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the story goes, when the house was quiet, the tailor went to the closet and took out a ledger.

“Master of the Universe,” he said, “the time has come for You and me to reckon up our sins for this past year.” He began by listing the sins he had committed. Then he went back to the closet, took out a thicker, heavier notebook and said, “Lord, first I listed my sins, and now I will list Yours.”

When he was finished, he said, “To tell the truth, You owe me more than I owe You, but I’d just as soon not keep strict accounts. We are commanded to forgive the wrongs that have been done to us. Why don’t I just forgive You and You forgive me?”

So much of what we do during Yom Kippur is a recount of our sins — great and small. The tradition teaches: For transgressions between individuals and God, Yom Kippur atones. We ask God for forgiveness.

But increasingly, I am feeling like the tailor, that we are not the only ones who need forgiveness.

I have lost friends and family to cancer this year, and I feel outraged at God. I have been sickened by the images from mudslides, hurricanes and earthquakes, not to mention the suffering we humans bring upon each other in the name of religion, politics or just vengeance.

There are times when I feel like washing my hands of this abusive relationship. I want to scream into the whirlwind, into the void I was once sure God filled. I want to scream: “I don’t believe in you! We are alone in the universe. There is no master plan. There is no Power or Creator.”

God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity. If I do not forgive God, how can I believe in God? How can I stand and tell others to ask for God’s forgiveness?

When Ebola orphans thousands of children in Africa, I find it very difficult to stand, bow and recite the Barachu — a praise of God. What brings a mother to stand and recite the Kaddish — a declaration of God’s greatness — over her deceased daughter? Yes, I believe in the great and small miracles that surround us every day. And I believe God is present everywhere if we only look.

But that does not absolve God. I am demanding God take responsibility. I demand an accounting.

After I have listed the places where I was not my highest self, the places where I fell, after I continue that hard uncompromising look into my soul, after I ask for forgiveness, I will leave a silence. And then, like the tailor, I will list God’s sins against humanity. The places where God has tested the limits of my faith, those crevasses filled with doubt, anger and disappointment. The vast wasteland of uncertainty and frustration.

My religious life feels like one epic struggle to believe there is some Higher Order in the universe. When I am standing in a place of prayer, I bring my confusion and my doubts. But I ultimately strive to believe God is El Elyon, God on High. I may at times feel like I am talking to myself, but I struggle to believe I am standing before Ha’ribono shel ha’olam – the Master of the Universe. I want to believe there is a God to serve. And I believe that God needs forgiveness. If not for God’s sake, then for my own.

By forgiving God, I make God relevant in my life. By forgiving God, I can allow room for my doubts, my struggles, my confusion. By forgiving God, I maintain my relationship and a connection with God — no matter how tenuous it may be at times.

It is not easy to forgive, but I will.

Because I do not want to write off the relationship.

Because there is too much to be lost by simply walking away.

Because I want my young children to develop their own relationships and come to their own conclusions.

Because despite the pain, sorrow and suffering, I want my universe full of miracles, not devoid of them.

Because I do not want to be one more angry, old cynic in the world.

I want to believe a voice still calls out from Sinai, from heaven.

I want to engage in the eternal conversations with the ancestors and sages. Despite it all, I want to live my life in praise — and awe — in wonder and hope. Even if I am wrong, even if at the end there is nothing but darkness. Despite my overwhelming desire to walk the other way, I will strive to forgive. Despite it all, I want to surround myself with the people of Jacob, of Israel, with those who struggle with God.

That is why I will forgive God.

And as the final shofar blasts and the gates of heaven close, I want to feel I am forgiven by God. I have faith in the power of that two-way forgiveness. When I forgive God, God becomes a force in the world, not some dusty ancient relic. When I forgive God, God reigns. And God regains some exalted place in the universe and in my life.

So, I will take the lead and forgive God. I will shout forgiveness into the whirlwind. And please God, forgive us. Please God, forgive me.

(Rabbi Will Berkovitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a 122-year-old agency that delivers essential human services.) 

KRE/MG END BERKOVITZ

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory