Embracing All the Layers of Your Life

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.
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.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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