747: The rest of a life

747: The rest of a life

747: The rest of a life


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

Amidst that instability and terror at the very beginning of the pandemic, there was also the odd and simple question: how is it, exactly, that I’m going to spend a single day now? While my partner and I disinfected our cereal boxes and rinsed onions in the sink, ambulances careened down our street every twenty minutes, wailing. As we attempted to piece together another day inside, all around us people were dying––quickly, constantly, and often alone.

The presence of mass death filled nearly every nook of conversation. For the first time, a culture obsessed with anti-aging and in severe denial of death, was collectively faced with the specter of our fragility. In my own, private way, I reckoned with impermanence and suffering by reaching for what grounded me. I rekindled a consistent meditation practice. I repotted long-neglected plants. And I danced in my living room––a lot.

My daily contemplative practices led me to some existential midnight internet searches. One night, I landed on a year-long training program called A Year to Live at an Insight Meditation Center in California called Spirit Rock. I signed up alongside 400+ meditators willing to conduct a 365 day experiment: what if I knew I only had a year to live?

Some of our classmates were, in fact, terminal; their training was not theoretical. Throughout the course we were guided in small groups and as a larger community to face what this imagined timeline brought, and to confront an inevitability, one that was always true, even before the pandemic: we are mortal, our time is not promised along an exact calendar. If we choose to face our own death instead of avoid it, it can become a direct portal into reality, instead of delusion.

The course wasn’t about finding some cute silver lining to dying, a sort of Hallmark card to give oneself. It was about tasting the vividness of impermanence. I see that same intention in today’s poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who had the courage to shrink that timeline down to a day.

The rest of a life
by Mahmoud Darwish

If someone said to me: ‘You’re going to die here this evening
so what will you do in the time that remains?’ I would say
‘I will look at my watch
drink a glass of juice
and crunch on an apple
and observe at length an ant that has found her day’s supply of food
Then look at my watch:
there is still time to shave
and take a long shower. A thought will occur to me:
One should look nice to write
so I’ll wear something blue
I will sit until noon, alive, at my desk
not seeing a trace of colour in the words
white, white, white

I will prepare my last meal
pour wine into two glasses: for me
and an unexpected guest
then take a nap between two dreams
but the sound of my snoring will wake me
Then I will look at my watch:
there is still time to read
I will read a canto of Dante and half a mu’allaqa 
and see how my life goes from me
into other people, and not wonder who
will take its place’
‘Just like that?’
‘Just like that’
‘Then what?’
‘I will comb my hair
and throw the poem, this poem
in the rubbish bin
put on the latest shirt from Italy
say my final farewell to myself with a backing of Spanish violins
to the graveyard!’

"The rest of a life" by Mahmoud Darwish from A RIVER DIES OF THIRST: JOURNALS, translated by Catherine Cobham, copyright © 2009 Catherine Cobham. Used by permission of Archipelago Books.