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Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge Massachusetts

Yesterday a group of us gathered at the Blue Spruce Knoll at Mt. Auburn cemetery, the burial site of Bonnie Horne. Bonnie died in January, and she carefully chose that spot as the place where she wanted her name engraved in stone. As was her deeply methodical and thorough nature, the decision was made with a decisive clarity. Even at the very end of her long struggle, she knew what she wanted.

A day spent in sober funereal thought was more appropriate than I could have known. Saturday was the last day of life for my best friend from my college years, Becky Abildskov Houck. Partnered by chance with Patrick Swayze, both were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the same time, and they died within weeks of each other. Like Patrick, she loved her work and didn’t want to stop. She was a professor of biology at the University of Portland, and year after year she was awarded for her inspirational teaching. She continued to teach while her body failed her, determined to keep doing what she loved most. On a Facebook page set up to keep everyone up to date on the news of her illness, hundreds of her students have written about how deeply she changed their lives. She loved biology, and she loved her students. In the spirit of my earlier posts about social contagion and the umbra of our influence on each other, Becky’s radiance was huge.

So this is a morning of mourning. A time to sit with the grief that comes from the loss of people who penetrated into my most interior realms—people I have eaten meals with, slept in the woods next to, shared suffering and celebration, people whose complexities and gifts put me in a state of cathedral awe. The best I have to offer to myself in this honoring is silence and quiet.

This morning my friend Andrew’s weekly email was full of the contemplative thoughts that come with a landmark birthday. I found his words well suited for the stream of feeling I am in.

What does it mean to turn 60? When my grandma Camilla couldn’t resolve a doubt or question, she would mentally shelve it, confident that with enough time it would sort out on its own. More by inattention than deliberate strategy, my own shelves groan now under decades of unresolved quandaries & qualms, a packed pantry of questions, virtual rows of mason jars preserving every conundrum, suspended in time like stewed tomatoes in sauce, home canned gristle, the indigestible peel or rind of scepticism, lazy half lies substituted for truth, cowardly retreats from light, all awaiting resolution. In one jar is the nature of time & matter & space. In another, how gods and matter came to be. In another, like a medical curio, my own brain suspended in a serum of impenetrable mystery.

At age 60 I feel entitled at last to pop the seal on some jars and see what I can make of the old contents that perplex me. The honored great – from Bergson or Nietzsche to Buddha or my Mormon heritage — point in various directions, like the goofy scarecrow with a stick up his spine, asked which way to the Wizard by the girl in the braids whose own journey ends sadly in addiction and distress: one straw-stuffed white glove points South to beauty, the other to the North Star and truth; then the stuffed arms rewind like a windmill, this time one glove indicating order and reason, the other glove dionysian excess. But at some point, as one’s allotted time approaches its limits, directions must be chosen based on one’s own intuitions. Perhaps at 60 it is permitted to worry myself into knots over the perplexities of existence, to my soul’s very content. That would be my birthday wish.

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