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Living in the layers, not the litter of our lives

On May 14, 2006, former poet laureate of the United States (and Massachusetts native), Stanley Kunitz, died at the age of 100. This is one of the poems that he left behind.
The Layers

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.

I love it. I think I could read it again and again. Go ahead--read it again!

It's a poem written from the perspective of someone older than I, but its message transcends age.

Sometimes I, too, feel that "I am not who I was," but feel that, still, "some principle of being/abides, from which I struggle not to stray." What is that "principle of being" from which we each individually struggle not to stray thoughout our lives? What principles of being, what core centers, would we stop being ourselves without?

What are the "the abandoned camp-sites" of our lives? I think we all have them, because everyone changes and leaves things behind. Sometimes fear of those abandoned camp-sites keeps me from making changes. What will it look like from afar, those lives that were picked up and discarded? The losses that are inherent to growth and change frighten me.

One day, I hope to be able to say that "I have made myself a tribe/out of my true affections," even though, like Kunitz, I fear that the tribe will be scattered.

And what does it mean to "Live in the layers,/not on the litter"? I feel like this poem sort of points to a way to do that, but the rest of the journey is up to each of us to take as individuals. It may be something that it takes a lifetime to learn.

May we each, in our own way, learn to live in the layers of our lives, and not in the litter, the abandoned camp-sites, the lives that we've walked through to get to where we are today.


Beautiful poem. Thank you.

I think "living in the layers, not on the litter" presupposes the perspective, to which you alluded, of an older person, looking down on the detritus of life – lost opportunities, aborted passions, interrupted works – and good things too, but the tendency is to see the bad, or the shells of what good used to live there.

To me, “living in the layers, not on the litter” is a sophisticated and nuanced ‘carpe diem’, turning on the distinction between “in” and “on”. "Living in the layers" means engaging in life in the here and now, whenever that is. Flowing with what is happening at the moment – being more ‘present’. The past matters, and informs our next incarnation, but need not be obsessed about. After all, it's in the past.

"On the litter" evokes for me a person who overly identifies with the baggage of their life, and uses it to inoculate themselves against the joys of the present. Their perspective is too broad, too retrospective to allow them to focus and take joy in the moment. They rest on their laurels, as it were, in the litter of their past lives, and cannot summon the strength to narrow their focus, and actually live any one of them.

This is a beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing.
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