A poem I haven’t thought of in some time has been hanging around me the past few days. Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe it’s a message. It turned up for me again this week as I was doing some research for a book idea.
The poem is called The Blue House (by Tomas Transtromer). In it, the narrator is standing among the trees in the woods near his home. He realizes that it’s like he’s just died and he’s seeing the house from a new perspective. My favourite line in the poem reads:“Inside, unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls.” It’s like a metaphor for a brain that won’t shut off, even when the rest of you feels good about things.
But it’s the simple image of the man in the woods that’s sticks with me. The power of looking at something so ordinary from a new and distant place – and suddenly seeing it from a different perspective – is transformative. And so is his recognition, a few lines later, that while he’s grateful for this life he has, he sees there is another life – the one he might have lived.
“A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the clouds.”
The sister vessel. The ghost life we did not live. The choices we did not make. The unknown consequences of those choices. If only we’d had kids. Or didn’t have kids. If only we’d gone to university. Or travelled the world. Moved away from home. Moved back home. Taken that job offer. Gotten married. Gotten divorced. Stayed single. All of the potentials — the wantings — of things to be otherwise that people torture themselves with. The different people we might have been if we had lived that phantom life. But instead, being the people we are now, living a life stitched together with the choices that we did make.
I think of my mother when I read that poem. I know she wondered about her ghost life sometimes because she never really got to be in the driver’s seat of her own life much. She always did what someone else wanted her to do, or needed her to do. She was always someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I don’t know if she was ever just her.
She’s on my mind because in the first cold, grey days of every January, I silently relive the last week of her life. Each day that week, from the 5th to the 12th – from the time she actively surrendered to the time she finally let go – we checked off “the lasts.”
The last time I saw her beautiful handwriting – shaky and weak this time as she signed her own Do Not Resuscitate order. The last time she stood up. The last hug. The last conversation. The last time she opened her eyes. The last time she acknowledged that she heard me with a squeeze of my hand. That last breath.
That week, the world moved so slowly, I could feel my bones shifting under the weight of it. At times, my faith was stretched so thin you could see right through my soul.
I hold all of those lasts so close to my heart. They are mine alone. Like the many places I’ve been in this world, their memory has become a place of solace and comfort that I can always close my eyes and go to. They live on a bookshelf in my mind and, in the first days of January every year, I wander past them, touching them all, but taking nothing. The same way I imagine my Mom packed for heaven – touching every piece of her life, each memory of every good and difficult time, but taking none of it with her.
My mom is my Blue House.
I’ve gone into the forest and turned back to look at that house many, many times. The new perspective it’s given me has let me see that all we have is the moment – and the imperfect love of people. It’s shown me that the power to understand the past – and to use it to propel us forward – lives in each of us. We can’t change what has happened or go back and live it differently. But we can change what it means. The essential truth about people is that we all live up to the stories we tell ourselves. We make decisions and act in certain ways, because it fits our lives. Change the story. Change your life.
On the hardest and most meaningful days in January, Mom whispers to me from the Blue House. She tells me I’ve learned to live beside her. And that I both know, and can’t possibly know, what it is that I’ll make of this life. “But it belongs to you. Keep walking on. There is light ahead.”