Today is the first day of school, a memory that returns even when one is no longer in school or has children of that age. It is part of the cycle of life.
I’ve been thinking about this cyclical nature of life recently. Last week six things happened that reminded me in especially personal ways of the wonder, challenge, opportunity, excitement, and fragility of everyday life.
During our regular visit to the Silver Spring farmers market on the Saturday before last, we were given a birth announcement for Laura Jade, the beautiful first-born child of young Mennonite farmers from Pennsylvania we’ve enjoyed getting to know over the past couple of years. Jacob and Brenda wanted to share their joy with us, and we could not be happier for them.
Tuesday saw me at the first of several catchup visits with my doctors, after a bit of a pandemic hiatus, which will inevitably include follow-ups to address this or that issue they uncover. A good reminder of the value of those annual checkups came when a family member had some minor surgery mid-week for the successful removal of what was left of a small mole that had made a recent appearance.
On Thursday, six of us gathered over lunch in a light-filled Washington home to welcome a dear friend’s return from a three-month sabbatical, a much-needed break of international travel, study, and quiet retreat which refreshed her spirit and expanded her horizons for the future.
That same day our son returned for an at-home rest before he’s off for his next adventure at Boston University’s Opera Institute. We also used this week to have a long conversation with our daughter, who is busy studying for the licensed clinical social worker exam in California. Both are navigating exciting passages in their lives. We were also able to work in a belated Father’s Day celebration.
And then Saturday arrived. We joined hundreds in a packed church to celebrate the life and to say goodbye to a dear physician, wife, mother, daughter, sister, proud Howard University graduate, holder of a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a M.D. from Duke University School of Medicine, Clinical Team Leader and Assistant Director at the Office of Compliance at the Food and Drug Administration, and — last but not least — friend. Kim died much too suddenly and much too early at the age of 53.
The cycle of life became abundantly clear yesterday morning, when less than 24 hours after that funeral I was back in the same church with a large group of friends and fellow parishioners for the baptism of Julia Dodds — a beautiful girl full of the joy of her first year of life and the daughter of a new family in our parish.
In one week, I experienced the wonder of new birth and childhood; the excitement of new beginnings; the opportunity of study, travel, and sabbath rest; the challenges of aging in the covid era; and the fragility of departures that happen much too early. All are part of the cycle of life.
The highs and the lows come when we engage with life in all its fullness and messiness. For the fortunate ones, we can engage and grow at every stage along the way, realizing the incredible amount we learn “between our birthday and our last day” as Ursula K. Le Guin phrased it, while maintaining the seeking, trusting capacity for learning and loving that we had as a two-year-old.
As I saw so clearly this past week, time is not the rushed, linear path that most of us see as Americans. We think time is money, a precious and scarce commodity. For so many of us, the past is over, but the present you can seize, parcel and package and make it work for you in the immediate future. Americans talk about wasting, spending, budgeting and saving time.
But there are other ways of thinking about time. In reading works such as Vietnam: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture (2020) by Geoffrey Murray as I prepare for an upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, I see more of the eastern approach, where people don’t attempt to control time. “Time is viewed neither as linear nor event–relationship related, but as cyclical. Each day the sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, the heavenly bodies revolve around us, people grow old and die, but their children reconstitute the process. Cyclical time is not a scarce commodity. There seems always to be an unlimited supply of it just around the next bend.”
As they say in the East, when God made time, she made plenty of it.
There may be plenty of time in the cosmic sense and I am certain that our time is not bound — on either end — just by our birthdays and our last days. But that doesn’t mean that we should sleepwalk through the time we have on earth. Travel is certainly one way to expand what we know, along with using the power of books to reach new depths of understanding. Most importantly, engaging — really connecting — with the people we see every day helps open up our inner places. As Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
The cycle of life is there before us to see and appreciate, living fully into the human, natural, and spiritual connections that are around us, behind us, and before us.
More to come…
Image from the James Webb Space Telescope (credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.)