Modest Mouse & Mary Oliver & The End (for now)

“I know that starting over is not what life is about but my thoughts were so loud I couldn’t hear my mouth.” – Modest Mouse

Shortly before we moved to Seattle a friend bestowed upon me some advice that someone once shared with her. She said something like, “It’s exciting to move and set up shop in a new place, but don’t forget that there will still be rude people and errands and dirty laundry to deal with no matter where you are in the world.” I’m paraphrasing this wisdom based on memory, but the underlying caution is that day to day garbage will follow regardless of how exotic the address is. Traffic will still be traffic no matter where we are in the world. Or: the grass isn’t greener on the other side, moving isn’t a cure-all, eventually the excitement will wear off. 

I was grateful for this advice and appreciate how it echoes the lyric “starting over is not what life is about,” which has been an essential sound byte of wisdom for me since 2004. Further, I can affirm that every word of her advice is true; folding laundry is not anymore exciting in Seattle than it was in Grand Rapids, much to my disappointment. But no matter how gracious, her input left me feeling a bit misunderstood. As I recall, I responded in my ditziest voice, reminding her that there were no mountains in Grand Rapids and Clay and I really wanted to be closer to the mountains. 

But I wish I had gone on to sing (if you will) the next lyric:

Having lived through the stark contrasts of surviving vs. living vs. being fully alive, Clay and I were no longer okay with “breathing just a little and calling it a life” anymore. With our ears to the ground, and our eyes wide open in hunt for a solution it became evident that massive, mountain-shaped wonder was a crucial element to sustain our recovery, and therefore we decided that it was worth rearranging our whole lives for. 

I wish I had made it more clear, to everyone, that Clay and I did not move for the excitement or adventure factor. That we don’t need everything to be new, new, new all the time in order to feel fulfilled. And that we weren’t looking for a re-do, a reset button, or an escape route. 

In the same way we didn’t fly to Portugal to run away from anything, we didn’t moving to Seattle to run away either. Rather, what we are chasing (what I hope we will always be chasing) is more, more, more. Where ‘more’ is an adverb, meaning further, or to a greater extent. Not running away but sprinting towards life more deeply, more wholeheartedly, more candidly. And not just any life: specifically a wide-awake, full, wondrous life that breeds gigantic sparks of joy. 


Truthfully, I could have saved a lot of time and chapters by simply sharing this poem; another great one from the late poet laureate, Mary Oliver. Titled “The Journey,” …this is my memoir, distilled into a poem:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save. 


I don’t wish my ‘journey’ on anyone. The version of The Black I wrote about in these pages is the light, softened version. I had to back-step several times because I wasn’t sure if people were ready to hear the brutally honest version, and honestly I’m not sure if I’m ready to tell it. Regardless, my biggest takeaway from either version remains the same: the harrowing season of loss left my husband and I gutted, but eventually became our most prominent teacher and taught us how to live. To borrow a line from James Finley, “We seek to live a more contemplative life so that we will not have to wait until we are dying to learn to live.” To have that lesson branded on my heart, no matter how painful, is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m grateful for my grief and the searing way it bubbles up and reminds me that I am alive from time to time. And that, in turn, reminds me to stay alive (so to speak); to not be bashful about what I want from life, and how I want to live it, and where I want to live it. 

Portugal and the Wild Wild West Tour and moving to Seattle fast-tracked that revelatory recovery in a lot of ways. Often, I catch myself feeling ashamed of those opportunities, or spoiled, and I have to remember that sometimes radical loss requires radical aid, and that’s exactly what we needed at the time. These trips were the big gifts we needed to understand that life still has so much to offer if we want it. 

Now that I’m out from under the 800lbs. of darkness, though, I can more freely see that generous gifts (big and little) are here for the taking everyday, everywhere; hanging out in plain sight. Flying across the country might help shake some of that loose, but for many of us Mary Oliver is right: seeing these gifts is as easy as waking from a little sleep. And by doing so, we might be surprised how many have been staring us in the face all along. 

The sun rises and sets everyday; gift. Breath; gift. Friends who make time to facetime you when you live far away; gift. Babies; gift. Being alive at all; gift. Apple pie, family, running water, opposable thumbs, the smell of wet fall leaves & dirt; gifts, gifts gifts. 

Grief; gift.

I don’t see each one of these as gifts every moment of every day; I’m human, and therefore not immune to grumpiness & oblivion & bad days. But being awake enough to see the wonders, or receive them at all in the first place is crucial to staying alive-alive.

In a perfect world none of us should need to use tsunamis, or fires, or grief-related disasters as wake up calls. And I wish I could offer an honorable formula that would spare us all from the aches and heaviness of life in the first place. (Just in case you’re wondering– I can’t.) What I can do, what I’ve felt compelled to do, is share the goodness that my misadventures (thus far) have taught me (thus far). (And maybe by doing so our decision to move, and flood your social media feeds with pictures of mountains, will make more sense.)

So humor me:

Think about it. Dredge up all the big and little wonders from your own memory. What beauty stands out? When did you feel the most loved? The most excitable, reenergized, alive? And how many of these moments opened up into something bigger and better than you could have possibly dreamed? 

Your kids? That trip to Portugal? Your marriage? Going back to get your degree? Hiking? Remodeling your house?

Prioritize whatever of these wonders are still available. If not, hoard the memories and keep them close to the surface. Use them to guard your heart, should you ever slide into “is this it?” territory. And if you do find yourself wondering if this is it, the trick is to refuse to believe it. …So dwell on each empirical joy as long as it takes to remember (and feel) that the answer, my beloved brothers and sisters, is “no,” and will always remain as such. This is not it.

Regardless of how stale or black or disappointing life gets, there is always more, more, more.  

Knowing that, the more important question to ask instead is this:
…are we willing to chase after it?