Mary Oliver has a quote,
“And you must not, ever, give anyone responsibility for your life.”
And I have violated this rule. I have not followed it even though I knew it was true before I read it on her page. This life, this mixed up, fucked up life, with all the starts and stops, all the plot twists, all the sudden arriving and departing, this life, this one right here is mine. And I am responsible for its ups and downs, and though I have attempted to make others responsible over the years...I have always known on some deep and stubborn level, that my life has been and will always be my responsibility.
I mean this in all the ways.
And I have violated the above rule of life so many times. I have tried to make others, unwilling and willing others, responsible for my life. I did this mostly because I was unsure what to do with myself. And in the moment, it seemed so much easier to turn myself over to you. It almost mattered not at all, that you were not really worthy, almost. That you didn’t want this responsibility I foisted onto you. It only mattered that I needed and thought that I could and would somehow avoid this most arduous task of living. That I could somehow transfer the load of ox to the cow. Realizing way too late that I am both, the ox and the cow and the transfer of responsibility from one to the other is merely the shifting of an object from one hand to another.
And at the very same time that I have been, at times, desperately trying to offload my life onto to some unsuspecting fool, I have also been fighting with all that I have to keep my life, maintain my life. To honor this responsibility with a feeling of privilege, a resolute sanctity of all this responsibility.
It is the craziest thing. What I have tried to do. To maintain this authority and agency over myself and this life, while also trying to shift the burden onto you. It hasn’t worked out very well, but it also hasn’t not worked out well...
If you read the passage from which the quote comes from, Mary tells us more about this responsibility for life. She tells us that it is the toiling that brings shape and form to this life. It is our endeavors to do what we are gifted with, even as we labor under its burden. We accept and move towards the things that move us passionately, but also toward those things we fear. And somehow in this tangled process, we build a handsome life for ourselves. A lovely, shameful life that is responsible to and of us. We the caretakers of our gifts always, not allowing for time or persons to ever shoulder the burden and gift that shall always be ours. We must never turn over this caretaking, this work, this toiling and striving in this life to others. We can love them, we can share our struggles and successes with them but they cannot ever be made responsible for our lives, nor us theirs.
Sometimes this responsibility feels too great. And the desire or need or wish that someone else would just tell me what to do and how to do it is overwhelming. To come and take up all this time and energy from me, relieve me of the bondage of myself and this whole living business. But that is exchanging a soul for peanuts really. And who would ever do a thing like that?
I have often wondered if I will ever solve this seemingly unsolvable issue of knowing that this life of mine, filled with purpose and meaning can ever be shared with another, without transferring that responsibility to this other person. Can I become intimately familiar with another soul, allowing them the grace of maintaining their own responsibility for their life, and me, mine?
This idea still rings incongruent in my mind. This calling to write all of this down, this need to pour out my soul alphabetically, daily, unstoppable now. It has, the writing, taken over me. To not do it daily, to even think such a thing, causes me panic and dread. And so it begins there, this insistent effort at being responsible for myself and all this life I have.
And I am reminded again and again that I can only share myself with others and allow them to do the same with me. And that is the communion of souls. Untarnished by too much need, want or codependence. This life where I am clearly responsible for mine and you yours, the ultimate sharing of two people, without co-opting the effort.
“And I did not give anyone else responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”
I guess I am still working on this. And what keeps recurring for me, is that while the desire lives deep within my psyche, I have always known, always believed, always found that no matter how many times I try to give myself and this life away, it matters almost not at all. It is mine, this life I live. To do with it what I please. To lean into the sharp points, the hard turns and the twists that feel like they will snap me like a branch in winter. These things, they are my becoming, and this life mine always. No matter what my dysfunction says.
I have just this one life. And the choice, the responsibility, the living of it, mine. Always, always mine. And I am thankful that even though I haven’t always been able to follow this, I have also never strayed. Never surrendered it completely to the forces that clamor for your soul as the price of admission. In the end, so far at least, I have always been able to clutch back the life that I so carelessly gave away. And pull it tightly to my chest, resting dramatically with myself, this life, and all the responsibility.
Those are the best days.
My daughter took this photo of me, on the top of a mountain in Big Sur, and I love the raven that appeared as my shadow. Reminding me always, that my life, is never exactly as it appears.