Words to Live By

September has been an interesting month in my household, at least in the sense of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." My husband, Richard, and I were due to spend to two weeks in a remote cabin in the San Juan Mountains, where we had been awarded a joint artist/writer retreat. Instead he landed in the hospital in Denver after he begin seeing birds–thousands of them–on our way to the cabin. There were birds everywhere: birds as tiny as house flies perched on every blade of grass and pebble, birds crowded every fence rail and utility wire, birds are large as condors appeared on distant ridge tops. He watches birds, and these were benign, so he wasn't troubled. I was: they weren't real.


Turned out he was experiencing what was probably a viral infection causing life-threatening swelling in the right frontal lobe of his brain, the area that processes visual stimuli. As I was trying to digest our swift transit from long-anticipated-retreat-in-a-remote-mountain-cabin to husband-in-the-hospital-with-swelling-of-the-brain, a friend, the novelist Jane Kirkpatrick, wrote something in an email triggered one of those "Aha!" moments, shifting my understanding in a subtle but profound way:

"This occurrence took you from your lovely cabin in the aspen grove, but sent you where you could receive what you need."

When I first read Jane's words, I was startled. Then I realized she was right. The events of late August, distressing as they were, did indeed send Richard and I to where we could receive what we need, both literally and metaphorically.

By that, I don't mean to say Richard "needed" the health issue that landed him in a Denver hospital for most of a week.

But he clearly did need to receive immediate and thoughtful medical attention, and he even needed the grueling battery of tests, the days in the hospital, and the subsequent course of treatment extending into the following weeks.

And I needed the chance to stop and reflect. Where the events that landed us in Denver instead of at the cabin in the aspen grove have sent me (at least in the metaphorical sense) is to pondering not how to get away on another residency, but how to make my every day life be more "residential" or "retreatful."
The busyness creeps in insidiously: just when I think I'm doing pretty well at staying balanced, I say "Yes" to one more deadline, one more speaking gig, one more teaching commitment, or one more kind of community involvement. Suddenly the days are cluttered with "shoulds" and I'm the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to keep from losing ground.

The time tending to Richard's health crisis gave me enough distance to recognize that I want to make every day more like I'm on a writing residency, without leaving home.

As a start on that, I wrote up a short list of words to remind me of how I want to live and work and be:







I'm not planning on joining a religious order (I'm generally allergic to organizations and groups, especially when they involve meetings), but I do want my spirituality and my love for life to infuse my every day.

So the lesson I take from the writing residency that didn't happen is a strong message to consider how I'm organizing my life and find ways to make my days even more about doing what I love and believe in–being the change I want to see, in every moment.

That reminds me of one more word to add to my list of words to live by, perhaps the most important:


Here's my wish for your days: Live as if you've been given a precious gift, because you have–life. Use it thoughtfully, mindfully, reverently. With love.

And write your own list of words to live by.

P.S. Richard's recovering at home, and I'm grateful to have him with me. The birds, having delivered their message, are gone, and we're working on restoring the rhythms of our lives in mindful and retreatful ways.

4 responses to “Words to Live By

  1. Susan,
    I’m constantly loving what you do with the tricky bits of your life that lead you to allow “spirituality andlove for life to infuse every day.”
    Your words to live by is a useful exercise for mining life values to live by. Your seven words are:
    What would my words and phrases be?
    Release and relax
    Love and beauty
    Do the work.
    Thanks for bringing this thought into my day.
    Janet Riehl

  2. Dear Susan,
    We’ve never met, but I’ve certainly heard and read about you and have your memoir on my list to purchase. This story touched my heart on so many levels. First of all, I am so glad your husband, Richard, is home and recuperating. How scary that must have been. But how you dealt with the event and what you’ve shared with us here is so empowering. I’ve been having similar feelings about the busyness of my life and pondering ways to change that. To create “sacred space” wherever I am, not just wait for prayer/meditation or a retreat.
    Thank you so much.

  3. Janet, That’s a fascinating list of words/phrases. I notice that you include “completion,” “service” and “do the work.” Do those overlap? I wonder if our words and phrases would be different on different days. Something to think about….

  4. Hi, Karen, Thanks for your words. It’s touching to me to have your good wishes and to know that my words reached you. Our culture does not reward mindful living, but culture is built and reinforced by the actions of every one of us, so I believe that we have the chance to make change by example in how we live our days. May you find the sacred space right where you are!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s