The funny thing about change is that you don’t always see it coming. You maybe wake up and rub your face and stumble out of bed expecting that day to be like the days before, with unplanned plans to end the day very much the same person as when you started. Sometimes, though, a thing happens in the space between sleep that is something like a life-quake – either tumbling the world down around you all at once – or, perhaps more often, quietly cracking the foundations of things you once believed were solid.
I didn’t know it then, or for years after, but if there was a single moment that changed my thinking, and then my life, it came when I was in college and a girl that lived in my building unexpectedly died. I didn’t know her and I’m not sure what happened. What I do know is that days later, on my way to class, I saw her parents collecting her things from her dorm. They were glassy-eyed and weary, the only adults in a sea of students. The mother was holding her daughter’s pillow, walking to the car. I thought of getting ready for school with my own mom, walking store aisles, picking out Rubbermaid totes, a hot pot, and extra long sheets – all the basics for life away from home. And now here was this different mother, holding onto the things that her child had left behind. It was so striking and sad to see, and to really understand for the first time that you could be Here, young and vibrant and hopeful then suddenly, you could be gone.
That alone might not have been enough to change me, but similar moments followed – one after another. My children’s literature professor died of cancer. Another student at our school died from a wayward blood clot after surgery. I wasn’t devastated in the way that you are when you lose someone very close to you. These were people I didn’t know well or at all. But something in me began to break – the things that had seemed very important before were less so after. Love seemed like the most real thing we could leave behind, so I transferred schools and moved across the state to be closer to my family and boyfriend.
A few weeks into the new semester was 9/11. All of those people. All of those people living their lives, thinking their thoughts. Making grocery lists and scheduling meetings. Telling their kids to Pick that up and Give me a hug. Walking to work and looking at the bright blue sky. All of those people were here and then, without warning, they were Somewhere Else.
After the World Trade Center attacks everyone seemed kinder. Raw and broken hearts give a better view of what really matters. I thought that all Americans seemed to be feeling what I’d felt months before and that maybe the world really could change all at once.
This world has a way of hypnotizing us, though, doesn’t it? Lulling us with its rhythm and routines. Wake and work and rest. Mixing up what matters most with what matters…less. Now and then something snaps us out of it – a smile or a sunset – and for that moment our priorities are put right again. For me, life makes the most sense when I listen to those that left too soon. When I’m worried and weary, this is what I think they’d say:
Listen you! You, with your body and your breath,
We’re better where we are now.
But you’re still there and there is work to do.
Make that place more like this one.
Without bodies it’s easy for us to see that we’re more alike than different.
Here there are no things to touch or hold or treasure.
We never worry because now we understand that forms and plans can be left behind
But We go on and the love we left never dies.
Enjoy where you are now, but don’t get fooled by it.
Don’t be burdened by the little things – the tricks and traps that wait.
Many things there will seem like they matter more than they deserve.
When you’re quiet and still you will notice the Breath of God in unexpected places.
Feel that and remember us.
So Heaven can be born onto the Earth.