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Miranda: A question

If you were to drop dead right now, this very minute, and you had a moment of last consciousness to weigh your life in the balance, what would the verdict be? Would you feel that you had lived your life to the fullest; that you had accomplished something important, whatever that means to you?

I admit to an unhealthy fixation on mortality. I think about this kind of thing a lot.  The topic came up recently with my cousin Charlotte (OK, so we covered almost everything in the domain of life and art within a few hours). Charlotte noted that I had just referred to death and dying about 30 times within 20 minutes. I’m not usually quite that bad, but I am frequently troubled by my fear of dying before I’ve completed a few important things on my list.

Charlotte was surprised to hear that I don’t think of my five children as “accomplishments.” But I don’t. They are really just these random people who I’m taking care of. I don’t take credit for having “good” kids — so much luck is involved; really I just try not to mess them up too much. Yes, being a mother, a good mother, is important to me, but it isn’t my life’s work. Sometimes I wish it were. Things would be a lot simpler. But while I try to apply creativity to motherhood as much as possible, my children do not feel like my “creations.”

When it comes to assessing life on a macro level, blogs like 37 Days only feed my obsessive nature. While the question “how would I spend my last month of life” is an important one, such a short timespan by necessity requires letting go of everything unimportant, immediately. For me, if I only had a month left to live, I would be entirely focused on my family and creating as many memories as possible — and creating reminders of my love for my children that would live beyond me. Would I worry about finishing my book? Probably not, although I think I would hand the project off to a trusted friend and ask her to finish it for me. I would probably write a good number of poems instead.

But since none of us can know exactly how much time we have left, we can only muddle through, trying to keep our perspective on what’s really important. While I might not work on my book if I only had a month left to live, I would work on the book if I knew had a year.

I hope that whenever the Big Mac Truck comes my way, I can go without regret. Of course there would be immeasurable sadness for leaving my family — but I would hope that I would be comforted by the feeling that I had done my best with the time that I had. That my children could rest contented in the knowledge that I loved them deeply. And that I had left something else behind — a book, perhaps? — that could touch the lives of strangers and help them make the most of their lives.

Maybe in our very last moments the only thing that matters is our relationships, and everything else becomes irrelevant. I wonder. How about you? What is the measure of a life well lived, and where does your creative mark fit into that assessment?

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cathy #

    ditto. but i would sigh about the travelling i always wanted to do and the pulitzer and nobel for lit that in my 20’s i swore i’d have accomplished by now.

    i have an unhealthy obsession with death, too. i contend the majority of writers and artists do. mine isn’t fear, though, it’s accomplishing what life’s goals i’m meant to accomplish, not mine, but the universe’s for me. i don’t know what those are. but i would like to believe i’m reaching toward peace and understanding for humanity and that my writing is part of that.

    just to get all woo-woo on everyone.

    but that doesn’t mean i don’t still get royally pissed off, either. 😉

    October 20, 2008
  2. Interestingly, I have been thinking of that a lot, especially as I am several years closer to the end than you are…

    For me, it would be a sad end if I had spent my life doing things I don’t enjoy. Conversely, to feel no regrets at the end (well, there always will be some regrets), I want to spend my time doing things I like. It is not so much the accomplishment of having created something for posterity, but the accomplishment of having enjoyed the days spent creating that is important. Knowing others are reading and enjoying my work is important to me. I write to write, but I write to be read, too.

    It is my goal to ditch work that does not stimulate and excite me and seek work that does. I want my creative life and professional life to meld.

    Miranda, I agree with you on “kids as accomplishments.” I think the fact that I have kept them alive, fed, and clothed is an accomplishment, but not a creative one. I am proud of who they are, and occasionally proud of how the way I’ve raised them has contributed to that, but ultimately I see them as their own people.

    October 20, 2008
  3. Hmmm…..interesting post, Miranda. I read 37 Days regularly and have Patti’s book Life is a Verb. I highly recommend it! I’ve always been a worrier. It’s never manifested in my personal safety, but rather in the safety of those closest to me. My DH works in the construction industry and for the past for years has been a project manager at a chemical plant, so if he’s not home when he should be, I worry immediately. We had a large chemical plant explosion here about a year ago–the plant was about 1/2 mile from his company office and the office was badly damaged, but no injuries. Everyone at the plant was killed instantly and DH knew two of the men well. Because of that, DH has gotten a little better about calling me when he’s going to be late.

    That said, I try to live my life in the moment and try to overcome my worrying. Do I want to leave something behind? Sure. I’ve been writing my own 37 days essay in my head for weeks now! Do I feel my children are accomplishments? I think being a good mother is a good accomplishment. I think teaching my children good manners and to say, “Yes maam,” and “No sir” in a society where that doesn’t seem to matter any more is an accomplishment. We took a friend of theirs to the zoo with us yesterday (yes, by the end of the day, I did realize that taking three 5-year-olds to the zoo by myself was a bit insane), and in watching how my girls behaved and spoke as compared to their friend, I thought, yes, I have accomplished something here. Maybe not a creative accomplishment, but a life accomplishment nonetheless. I wrote a story when I first started blogging nearly two years ago. Seems fitting to share it here with this post. It’s called “What Matters Most”.

    October 20, 2008
  4. amy #

    I haven’t had enough coffee yet to ponder this! Although my husband was saying something about our two daughters being accomplishments too and I don’t really think of that in the same way either. I did always want to have children and they were on the list of life “goals” so I see that my life is further along with achieving the things that I wanted to. My Grandma is 87 and my husband asked her the other day if she ever got to a point where she could say “I am doing everything right.” She said, “yes every day!” So maybe it in the daily living really and your own perspective rather than one long timeline.

    October 20, 2008
  5. A moving and important post, Kelly. Thank you.

    October 20, 2008
  6. Yes, if the end came in a heartbeat, I would feel that I had lived a full life. To the fullest? Probably not. There were days of confusion and sorting out along the way … days where I was not focused and making the most of every moment. There were times of doubt and meandering, especially as I switched from one career path to another. But in general? Yes, I could kick it tomorrow and say that I feel I accomplished a lot. I’ve enjoyed a 34 year loving marriage to the same wonderful man … two happy, loving and successful children … I’ve never had a job that wasn’t based on creative expression … there has been recognition – plenty of writing and art awards along the way … and now I’m truly following my heart’s desire and painting as much as humanly possible in the undetermined time I’ve got left. I’m hoping that in addition to our children and the lives they will touch, my art will be my lasting contribution – a glimpse of the way the world was circa 2000. Every painting that I send out into the world to a new home carries a part of me with it … a part that I hope will live on. Does the awareness of mortality stoke my creative fire? Yes, absolutely.

    October 21, 2008
  7. Charlotte #

    aaargh, Miranda! Death again?! 😉

    Surely I didn’t use the word “accomplishment”? Of course I agree that they are they are entirely their own people; once they are here, you – what – facilitate/support/guide/even shape them, not create who they are. But as a non-mother I am surprised to hear 3 (at the latest count) mothers say that they don’t feel that having children was a form of creation to which they contributed… I can however well understand that one might not regard this as the pinnacle of one’s own personal creative achievement (that’s meant to be ironic, in case you can’t hear my tone of voice… ;-)).

    V late now so will consider the what makes a life well lived question another time when I feel braver… My heart tends immediately towards the “relationships” answer, but in life this does not creatively fulfil me…

    October 21, 2008
  8. I also have a preoccupation with death. It’s gotten worse since I had John. I made the mistake of telling my mother that in case of an emergency, we had choosen my in-laws as the boys’ guardians, and she has been hounding me about this decision ever since, not realizing, I suppose, that I don’t particularily like the idea of anyone else raising my children.

    Like many of you, I don’t consider my boys my best creative achievement. They sprang from a different place than the place I create from. And when I’m the creator, I can control the final outcome. I would not, for example, have intentionally “created” a two-year-old with a poop facination. More than anything, I feel like my boys have been entrusted to me for safekeeping–that I have been charged with guarding these little beings until they are prepared to venture independently into the world.

    But back to your question, Miranda. If I only had one day to live, I would be satisifed with the life I’d led. I could go feeling like I’d done the best I could. But I would be wistful at the same time, because there are so many more things I planned to do.

    I have two life’s to-do lists . One represents the bare minimum–my responsibilities to the world. On that list are things like raise my boys to be caring, responsible, fun loving and creating men, fulfilling my responsibilities to my marriage, meeting my obligations in life, being a good friend, a person other people can respect. The other respresents the things I want to accomplish that are only important to me, and must always take a backseat to my responsibilities and obligations. (For example, I might want to write all day, but the children need to be fed, and taken to school, and it’s not an option to be selfish, ignore them, and write.) On this list are the BIG GOALS. Things like getting published, being on a bestseller list, writing a Broadway play, becoming wealthy from writing and living a bohemian writer’s life traveling around the world with my family. Let’s say any one of the things on that list were to happen, I would not only die without regret, I would die happy. More than anything else, it would validate me and my internal life. A life, that up til now, hasn’t received the same kind of validation as my external life.

    October 21, 2008
  9. Cathy #

    i love everyone’s cotribution to this question and would like to add one thing to the idea that children are not our creations:
    On Children
    Kahlil Gibran

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.

    October 21, 2008
  10. Cathy #

    and to that i will add that the acapella group sweet honey in the rock sing an astounding version of this poem that moves me to tears everytime i hear it and absolutely transported me as a parent when i saw them sing it at Boston Symphony.

    October 21, 2008
  11. stunning poem cathy, thanks for sharing that. this topic has brought out some very interesting comments!

    October 21, 2008
  12. Thanks for the quote, Cathy. It’s beautiful. I’m making a photo book of John for the grandparents and great-grandparents for Christmas and wanted to start it off with a quote, but had had no luck finding the right one. Now I have. 🙂

    October 21, 2008
  13. Kristine #

    I became obsessed with death when my daughter was born. My biggest fear is not being around for her as she grows up. I found that once I became a parent, I was much more aware of my own mortality. It was scary and enlightening at the same time.

    I also want to live a life doing what makes me happy. I’d like to leave behind a legacy, which I hope to accomplish with my writing. If I can get one book published in my life, I’ll die a happy woman (although a whole bunch would be nice!).

    I also don’t see my daughter as an accomplishment. Getting through the physical and emotional process of pregnancy and labor, however, was an accomplishment. (grin) I see her as a gift, an individual person who is counting on me to guide and protect her. Teaching her to be a loving, kind, independent woman is my duty as her mother, one that I hope to accomplish to the best of my ability.

    Great post and comments.

    October 21, 2008
  14. Cathy #

    i think it’s my favorite poem of all, especially since becoming a parent. glad i could share it. but i think the website i copied it from quickly spelled khalil incorrectly. yep, just doublechecked it, it’s h before a.

    October 21, 2008
  15. E-J #

    ‘ … While I try to apply creativity to motherhood as much as possible, my children do not feel like my “creations.” …’ Miranda, I think that’s one of the healthiest things I’ve read in ages!

    My aunt was told last year that she was terminally ill, with perhaps just weeks to live. She managed seven months from that diagnosis; and having faced the responsibility of organizing her own funeral, she then went about spending that unknown period of time seeing as much as possible of her immediate and extended family, and having as much of a laugh as she could. What we imagine wanting in our last days and weeks will differ from person to person, but as for whether the kinds of goals we tend to have as creative types are likely to seem more or less meaningful in the light of our own imminent death: who can know, ’til we ourselves are in that same sad and privileged situation?

    October 21, 2008
  16. Thanks, E-J. You’re right, we can’t really know how we will react, although we can take a few cues from loved ones who have faced their deaths, as you point out. I don’t have a lot of experience there, but I imagine there are some commonalities.

    I hope that in a few years I can get to the place that Karen is at. I do love having all these children, but I also look forward to the day when my time is more or less my own, and I can immerse myself more fully in creativity. Until then, I’ll be working hard to keep things going as much as possible — and just hope that I get to enjoy a less frenetic lifestyle in a decade or two!

    Sounds like the fear of mortality goes hand-in-hand with motherhood for many. I do know that I used to regularly fly to Europe as a child and adolescent without batting an eye, but by the time my third child arrived I became extremely anxious about flying — and I still am. I hate it. I am always convinced that we’ll drop out of the sky — and those stats about flying being safer than driving really don’t help. I’d rather drive for three days than take an airplane, whenever possible!

    October 22, 2008

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