“Live in the layers not on the litter”

Joop sm jpeg

This is Joop.  He died on July 2 from an aggressive form of cancer.  He was only five.  The week that Joop was diagnosed I read a poem by Stanley Kunitz (1905 – 2006) called “The Layers“. For some reason the line from this poem, “Live in the layers not on the litter” has been in my head and heart all summer.

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 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 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.

Kunitz wrote this poem in 1978 after the death of several of his friends including the suicide of painter Mark Rothko. The famous line came to Kunitz in a dream and while even he says he is unable to decipher it,to me  there is something consoling about it.  It seems to offer a guideline if not an explanation.  How do we weather life’s great losses? How is it that we are not consumed by grief at the many tragedies we endure as we get older?

I don’t really have any answers to these questions.  Neither did Kunitz.  The closest I can come is this.  We know that we are drowning in litter both literally and figuratively.  Every day my trash bin is full of deleted e-mails and my recycling container is stuffed with wasted pieces of paper.  Inside my brain there is a non stop conversation going on, most of it irrelevant.  We are all drowning in litter.

When I looked in the beautiful eyes of my Joop, when I leaned down to kiss him and we shared a moment, I felt a part of the complexity and the beauty of being alive.  My heart broke when he died. Yet that is still preferable to living in the litter. We can live in the layers if we chose to, as heartbreaking as it is.  If we must drown let us drown in the layers.

Stanley Kunitz wrote this poem in 1978 out of despair at so many losses. Yet he continued to write for nearly thirty more years and lived until he was 100.  Maybe the consolation in poems and in paintings like this one by Rothko is how we survive.

Rothko 1

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