Otherwise: On Life’s Uncertainty

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I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the fragility of life. Probably more than I should. I’m not morbid, I’m curious; perhaps I’m a bit anxious, as well.
Life: It’s so unpredictable.
One day you’re riding high, the next day you plummet to the depths. Illness takes us by surprise and changes everything–sometimes permanently. Job loss, accidents, fractured relationships, missed connections, near misses–all of it happens so fast. And of course, the ultimate gamechanger–death. The phone rings once, twice, three, four different times and that’s it, they’re gone. No notice, no time for goodbye.
When I think about this, I’m reminded that I, too, will have a last day on this earth. A last breath.
One final exhale.
How can we live with that awareness? I know how I try to live with the knowledge that one day will be my last: I live every day in gratitude. I live every day knowing that it might be my last. I am so truly grateful just to be alive (and I don’t care how cliche’ that sounds!)! I try (notice: I said, I try) to embrace all of life–it’s ups and downs and sideways diversions. Because those four phone calls I mentioned a few sentences ago, were all abrupt goodbyes concerning people I loved so much and who left us way too soon.
Unexpected deaths change us. Not being able to say goodbye changes us. The knowledge that this could be the last day we spend with a loved one changes us.
It all changes us. 
Paradoxically, awareness of death helps us to live a more wholehearted life. When we are conscious of our death, we become more conscious of our life. Meditating on this common Buddhist saying helps:

Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?

And then, also to help us along, there’s poetry. And while it, like awareness, is not a fixer of death (What is? Time? Ha! I certainly don’t think so!), it is a healing balm for sad, worried, fearful souls. Poetry is a way to express the inexpressible, and the often unexpressed.
Jane Kenyon’s poem, Otherwise, is one of my favorites on this topic. It’s about gratitude and life’s uncertainty and death’s certainty. As I write this blog post, I’m also looking out my living room window, petting my cat, drinking my coffee, and making plans for today, tonight, and tomorrow. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.


Otherwise–Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Author’s photo, 2013. The view from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s window. Monk’s House, Rodmell, UK.

Poem from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems from Jane Kenyon, Graywolf Press, 1996.


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