There are two questions I like to ask everyone I meet if given the opportunity. The first is “What would you do if you won the lottery?” And after the person flushes out all their exuberant plans I hit them with the second, “What would you do if you were given 6 months to live?” Most people would travel if they won the lottery, most would spend time with loved ones or work on a bucket list of exciting activities on their death bed. Most people also reciprocate the asking of these questions; answering them so many times has made me self conscious about my lack of adventurousness.
To the first I have always answered, Pay off all my student loans immediately after quitting my job, buy a condo and rent an art studio near Forest Park in Portland then find interesting ways to be useful in the community. To the second I have always answered, Move to a house in a forested spot near Manzanita and write poetry.
I did not question my answers at all when it was just me and the book that introduced me to these questions (I can’t remember the source but would love to be reminded.) But ordinary people will stare blankly at you if you tell them you want to spend your final days alone, writing chimey little documents that can’t be taken with you. I began to think this scenario was boring and should be improved, that if I was really faced with death I would clearly want to spend time with loved ones or see the world.
The point of the questions though, is not to make actual reservations for these moments in our lives but to trick ourselves into realizing our true priorities. The first one takes down our obstacles for us. The second removes our pettiness. And so, boring as it may seem, I have to honor that it is part of my calling in life to be deeply involved with poetry.
It is challenging in this age of technology and materialism to make space for the parts of our personal mission that don’t generate income. That’s why it often takes a reckoning with death to unearth their presence. In my 20s I felt an unaccountable richness sitting at the folding table by the window writing poetry about the stray leaves in the neighbor’s driveway. I knew without a doubt then that I had found my calling and yet I abandon it regularly.
After I moved in with my folks to live as a full-time artist for a while I came across my old poetry notebooks and wailed with a deep grief for realizing I had abandoned that part of me, for imaging what it could have grown into. It was ironic because I went to art school to learn how to make my poetry into art with the idea that it could then be my career and not just a hobby. I was around my words all the time in school but I wasn’t writing. At my folk’s house I vowed to begin again. It was a rusty machine, clunky and possibly too broken to run. I abandoned it again when it seemed time to surrender to modern society and get a full-time job.
What can we do but to keep death near and try again each time? I hope you will ask yourselves these questions and dare to knock some of the rust off your secret mission in life.