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Embracing All the Layers of Your Life

“The Layers” is a haunting yet hopeful poem about aging and loss, written by a man who died just two months shy of his 101st birthday. Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) twice held the post of U.S. Poet Laureate, most recently in 2000.

I’ve long been intrigued by his line, “Live in the layers, / not on the litter.” It brings to mind the three times I’ve taken the ten-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

If you make that trip with a geologist, as I did, you learn that the layers of rock that make up the walls of the canyon are not only beautiful. They’re a record of the canyon’s ancient history, with each layer telling the story of a different geological era.

It seems to me that our lives take us through different “geological eras.” Each one leaves a layer of evidence about what happened during that time, about what we did and what was done to us. Of course, most of us have eras we would just as soon forget — and becoming preoccupied with the “litter” that’s always on the surface of our lives gives us an easy excuse to do exactly that.

But we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.

“Live in the layers, / not on the litter.” It’s good counsel at any age or stage of life:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

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.

(Excerpted from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Read the full poem here.)

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