One of my most-thumbed books is a poetry anthology simply titled The Top 500 Poems. I have about a dozen of my favorite poems bookmarked, one of which is P. B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The short commentary on the poem notes that, while the cautionary tale of pride is immediately evident, perhaps the boastful king still had the last laugh: “… even if the monumental statue is broken and the inscription sounds fatuous, what remains of anybody else of that age?”
This is the way the world ends
I knew from the start that this season of Nutcracker would be different, because my heart wasn’t quite as in it, due to a number of extenuating circumstances. What I didn’t realize was that my body was going to call it as well. I guess this isn’t exactly unexpected, knowing the rapid decline of professional sports players when they’re past their prime. What a difference a year makes for so many players — especially in the NFL, when a running back goes from top of the heap to replacement squad in a season.
It seems it also happens to us amateurs as well. After what I thought was a fairly minor lower back injury about a year and a half ago, my body’s been getting progressively worse, to the point that I don’t think I’ll be able to perform next year, even if I wanted to. What little flexibility and strength I have appears to be long gone, not to mention the ridiculous amount of weight I’ve gained in the past year. While it probably doesn’t help that a busier work and social schedule reduces the number of classes I take per week, I can’t help but feel that my time doing ballet is quickly drawing to a close.
The excruciating question has been, and remains: what now? Do I redouble my efforts, and try to work through the malaise and pain? Dare I try to find another hobby, perhaps another dance style that is less of a “young people’s sport”? It frightens me to leave what has been a tumultuous love-hate relationship with ballet, a very tangible sort of comfortable uncomfortableness. While any endeavor can consume time and passion, there’s a special place in my heart for that which humbles me so, which will be hard to replace.
We are the lords of life, and life is warm
Death has been very much on my mind. It’s probably inevitable when someone close to you — the one you meekly most imagine yourself as possibly being — passes away. Right now, it seems that I haven’t learned the lesson that he was teaching, because all I feel is fear. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the day before Thanksgiving.
In some ways, as his wife mentioned, he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to put his affairs in order; fortunate to have lived long enough, and in good enough health, to cross off so much of his bucket list, despite the agonizing choices and sacrifices that they did have to make. (I still wish we could have gone to Wimbledon together one more time.) And in my most cynical moments, I wonder just how vanishingly few people are lucky enough to be so financially secure by their 30s as to be able to pivot their lives in order to fully live without regrets or hesitation, to be able to receive world-class treatment, and to have a New Yorker profile written about him or her. For every life’s story that is told, a thousand are unsung.
Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics mused over the question, whether it made a difference if it’s one year, or ten, a hundred, or a thousand? In some ways yes, and in others, no. The specter of death hangs over all living things, and that existential fear would be no less poignant if one were told a day or a millennium. But it’s blindingly obvious that what one would choose to do with one’s life would be very different, given the amount of remaining time left.
When the prognosis became clear, the two of them did the very brave action of focusing on quality of life, not quantity of life. Instead of enrolling in every possible clinical trial or experimental treatment, they focused on hanging out with friends, making music, and building communities and relationships — the experiences of a year for which I’m eternally grateful to have played a small part, and been a generous recipient of their love, generosity, and time. It’s so easy to see that ultimate life lesson, but so difficult to internalize, and even more difficult to actualize. Whether we have terminal brain cancer or are at the peak of health, we should try “to live graciously, nobly, boldly, and with every fiber of our beings.” (Why am I quoting myself?)
We are each bestowed with the vast improbability that is our being alive. Finite though they are, we must build statues though we know they will crumble; dance though we know its fleeting nature; love though we know it will break our hearts; pursue our dreams though we know we will fail; forever fight the good fight, and take each breath until we can’t.