In praise of the precious miraculousness of the mundane.
“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her ode to living with maximum aliveness, written during her brush with cancer.
I’ve been thinking of Oliver’s poem as I remember with a sorrowful heart the children’s book author and memoirist Amy Krouse Rosenthal (April 29, 1965–March 13, 2017) — a woman of such radiant warmth, vitality, and inner light, and such palpable empathic prowess, that one felt gratefully at home in her presence and somehow instantly more alive.
Amy and I met several years ago at a TED conference offshoot and quickly discovered a great kinship of spirit. We stayed in touch. She came to visit. We walked and talked and sipped tea and bonded over our shared love of artist Nina Katchadourian’s book spine poetry.
In the early spring of 2015, I received another email from Amy. “This just happened and I thought of you,” read the subject line. “Packing up some books for a trip and stumbled across this Book Spine Poetry,” she wrote, and included this photograph:
Almost exactly two years later, Amy died of ovarian cancer after a shockingly short transition from the seeming ordinariness of her pre-diagnosis life to her confrontation with death, which she faced with the same extraordinary largeness of heart with which she lived.
A decade earlier, in her wonderful Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (public library), Amy had offered an invitation to aliveness so profound and sobering in its simplicity, and so poignant in the wake of her death, that it fills the aching heart with gratitude for the invaluable gift of being shaken into living:
RETURNING TO LIFE AFTER BEING DEAD
When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.
How fortunate this world is to have had her for the woefully insufficient time that it did. Here’s to Amy, and to being “fantastically alive” for as long as we are living.
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