The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which the scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through the wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

-Stanley Kunitz  (1905 – 2006)

I am reading this powerful meditation on life, death and perseverance, written by the late poet Stanley Kunitz, on one of those picture-postcard-beautiful Cape summer days, the kind of day when life seems pregnant with possibility and death an unimaginable fantasy. I am struck–and touched–by the words with which Kunitz ended this poem, “I am not done with my changes”. It is an affirmation that life, with all of its challenges, blows and sweet rewards is precious and that each of us, until we draw a final breath, is capable of change and growth.

Over the course of the past few months several members of the congregation came to speak with me about end-of-life issues. I have always welcomed such conversations because, in my role as rabbi, it is not unlikely that I will officiate at the funerals of many of the members of our community and I am helped tremendously when I gain a clearer sense of how congregants are thinking about the end of their lives. Frequently these conversations go hand-in-hand with purchasing cemetery lots or making pre-need arrangements with a funeral home.

I understand that this is not the kind of conversation that all of us are prepared to have, that the thought of our mortality is one that we usually keep well-hidden with all manner of tools of denial. I would suggest, however, that there is much to be gained from prying open the armor of our psychic self-defense and giving some thought to end-of-life considerations. It was with this in mind that, some years ago, I created a form that I offered to the congregation. It requests practical information about next-of-kin, funeral arrangement that have already been made, location of cemetery plots, etc. But it moves beyond the pragmatic, asking one to respond to a series of questions about one’s life, one’s goals and accomplishments, one’s legacy.

While the practical utility of such information is to assist whomever will officiate at your funeral, the more important function of this document is to prod you into considering the arc of your life, to “look behind”, as poet Kunitz suggests, “before [you] can gather strength to proceed on [your] journey.”

Biz a hundert undt tzvantzik…May you live to be a 120!” goes the traditional Jewish wish. And may I be long retired from my rabbinic career before someone would need to access that form! But, just in case, I hope that you will give serious consideration to requesting a copy of this form from the temple office. Even at the end of his life Stanley Kunitz averred “I am not done with my changes”. I hope that each of us can say the same. After all, this “end of life” document can always be amended and appended!

Reb Elias