Let Everything Happen to You

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, 1905 (trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy)

Let Everything Happen to You

Surrender to life, planned and unplanned, joy and sorrow, beauty and fear, love and loss. Open to all of it, including terror about the loss of democracy, the national romance with war, cruelty toward anyone we see as other, and our relentless rape of the Earth. Not to leave out personal terror of age, illness, and mortality. Everything will happen to me. How do I breathe that in?

The Rim Fire; Stanislaus National Forest, CA, 2013 (wikimedia)

Beauty and Terror

last portrait, 6/2/2008

Finding beauty and kindness was my spiritual practice as I navigated medical catastrophes with my husband. I let terror in because it was too big to stop. I meditated, repeated mantras, and read poetry. I felt the Earth shift, grounded myself in the soles of my feet, held on and let go.

I watched an elderly man gently smooth his wheelchair-bound wife’s silver hair as they waited in line for a receptionist. In a cold ER, a nurse offered a warm blanket and a bottle of water. In chemotherapy, a volunteer smiled and offered carefully arranged cookies, beautiful even if we couldn’t eat them. A ray of light pierced a dusty glass window and brought color and hope into a room of wilting humans.

Wild Rose

During Vic’s long hospitalizations, I walked across the highway to enter Mount Hope Cemetery and searched for the red flash of a cardinal or listened for the squawk of a family of crows. At home, I walked the trails with my pup Willow and my camera. I searched for beauty year round, sheltered from wind in the forest, and followed deer tracks in the snow. In June, I stuck my nose into a sweet wild rose and inhaled.

Just Keep Going

When despair was deep, my son said, “Remember what you used to love and do that.” I heard him and weeded the garden in summer. I cleaned the nesting boxes in winter and learned to drive the tractor and mow my trails. I hugged Willow and soaked in the glory of sunsets.

Years later, there is still one choice as life brings new challenges: “Just keep going.” Keep searching for the path, the beauty of a butterfly, the soaring dance of mating hawks.

No Feeling Is Final

Rilke’s words offer a gentle reminder of constant dissolving and change, even as I resist and cling. Wait an hour or a day or a minute and something else will arrive. The poet doesn’t offer a prayer to release all living beings from suffering, but instead gives a quiet practice for an ordinary mind full of wrestling and resistance.

This wise poet struggled, too, but captured his feelings in the beauty of a poem filled with truth. “Reach up,” I imagine him saying. “Just do this.”

Green Man Rescue (E Mansfield, 11/08)

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

Once again, Rilke quietly embeds an everyday spiritual exercise in his poem, no matter what your religious or nonreligious beliefs. You might enjoy reading the whole poem or hearing it read by Joanna Macy here at OnBeing where you’ll find much more to read and love.

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Has sacred poetry helped you through the hardest times? I’d love to know some of the poems that moved you. For other posts about poetry and grief, see my most read and shared blog since 2013: Poems to Grieve By: Love, Loss, and Continuing Bonds. This is another favorite: Poems to Soothe a Grieving Heart.

24 Comments
  1. Life is constantly dissolving and changing. No matter how much we don’t want it to. Good reminder, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Mark. I thank Rilke and his translators for saying this so well. It’s a memorized poem fragment for me now, to be repeated over and over again as I need it. And I always need it.

  2. I clicked back to three of your links and found my comments when the posts were first published. Also, I enjoyed hearing the poem read by Joanna Macy in On Being; I miss Krista Tippett, but the broadcast continues.

    Yes, What wisdom to find in the words Just keep going/No feeling is final, words I’m taking to heart as I feel along the walls of the unknown, trying to make sense of publishing and marketing, though I have the help of caring author/friends.

    Poetry is the genre we depend on to express deep feelings, joy or sorrow. On my blog today is William Stafford’s poem The Way It Is. I tried to copy it here, but no luck. Your “last photo” is so heart-wrenching, but you had the presence of mind to ask someone to snap the shot at a sad, sad time. Then, you created a drawing of rescue from the Green Man. You are the mistress of creative expression, Elaine!

    As you know, I turn to poetry and to scripture during hard times, like now. Blessings to you this day. I see you enjoying the birds and bees and butterflies on your land today.

    • Thank you, Marian. I look forward to reading the Stafford poem you shared. When I asked the question at the end, I thought about the exquisite biblical poetry which supports you–and then you surprised me with a Stafford poem. Our dear friend Steven who was with us through Vic’s illness and is still my beloved neighbor and “brother” asked if he could take photos on that day. My defenses were demolished. I’m so glad I said yes. He took many photos, one more beautiful and wrenching than the next. Beauty and terror. It’s great to have such a gentle and daring friend.d

      Today I found my first tiny Monarch caterpillar hatched from an egg I collected. It’s been a slow year for Monarchs, so I yelped in happiness. I have 6 more possible eggs waiting on milkweed leaves on my porch. I watch each little miracle closely because sometimes I’ve collected an egg from an insect that devours Monarch eggs. (I have a magnifying glass for identification but need to buy a stronger one.) So a touch of joy and more Monarchs on a morning walk. I’ll keep searching for eggs and tiny caterpillars. It’s a meditative exercise which is what I need now.

  3. Sorrow and beauty—thank you. I love the poem—with the last line “Give me your hand”. With your writing you offer your hand.

    • I love the whole poem, too, Harriet, especially that last line. A German speaking friend told me she liked it better translated in English than in German–and she added, “I never say that.” I worked that last line into one draft, but it got complicated, so I kept it focused. Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. Thanks Elaine for this beautiful post. I often wonder what my response would be if I had to face the hardest challenge. I have experienced some challenges and while I may have battled with them, so far so good. My philosophy, based in part on experience, is very much that life happens, the good along with the bad and we have no control of what the Fates have in store for us ‘even as I resist and cling’ as you say.

    There are always moments of pure joy as we look around in nature, fulfilling its function for sure and we get to delight in what we see. I guess we also learn that nature has her cycles, things die and are reborn and we too learn that despair passes in its own time. “No feeling is final’ is very powerful.

    • Thank you, Susan. I imagine the beauty of seeing the animals you see in South Africa–and the terror for their safety and preservation. I’m always thrilled when you share animal photos from your world. The letting go is the hard part, right next to that need to struggle, survive, and protect. You’ve had plenty of difficult challenges, maybe practice sessions in meaning-making and preparing us for ever bigger challenges. As I said in response to another comment, this morning I found a tiny Monarch caterpillar hatched from an egg I’d collected. It’s the first of the season. So tiny and fragile but now protected on its very own milkweed leaf in its on container on my back porch. A moment of joy followed by seeing more Monarchs in the milkweed patches. There’s always more beauty and terror on the way.

  5. A lovely post, Elaine, and so needed in this crazy world as things change from moment to moment and leave us feeling unsettled. Thank you so much for your and Rilke’s words

    • Thank you, Joan. I agree it’s a perfect few lines for this wild, unpredictable, and unsettling world we live in. Rilke is so good at articulating a perspective that helps me/us hold those moments without panic.

  6. As has happened so often with you, this post is exactly what I need right now. I am four months into a mysterious and debilitating illness that took two months to even get a name for–supposedly Guillain Barre, but this seems to be medical code for “We have no idea why all of these horrible things are happening but good luck to you. Oh, and here’s your bill.” I have been hiding from the world, barely managing to get by and hoping it would resolve without ever really needing to mention it to most people. But for now it seems I am going to have to breathe into it as it does not want to loosen its grip on me. No feeling is final will be my new mantra, thank you.

    • Oh, Kara. This is so hard. I noticed you weren’t visible in the usual places where we make contact, but assumed you were busy with work and family–and now I know otherwise. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I looked up Guillain Barre which I know nothing about and it sounds rough and mysterious. I gratefully noted that most people have full recovery, but it sounds like it can be a slow and uncertain process. “Barely getting by” which I know too well is a hard place to live. It’s objectively hard to keep going with unrelenting fatigue and whatever other symptoms, but also the fear that the situation will never change or improve. I hope you’ll share information and reflections. I wish you deep rest and fast full recovery. I’m sure you know the Rumi poem “The Guest House.” It’s my favorite perspective for times like this. Take the very best care of your precious body.

  7. Good reminders Elaine. Any glimmer of of a bright spot is welcomed in this new world of darkness.

  8. Hi Elaine
    I stumbled across your blog today while searching for more encouragement and information on osteoporosis. Your posted site on the effect of exercise and bone health was so uplifting and encouraging for me and I thank you for sharing your journey and wisdom!
    I have saved the pdf and plan to try and follow the illustrated exercise regimen there.
    I am needing a coach to guide me in improving my overall bone health and reducing my fracture risk.
    I’m sorry for posting here. I seem to be out of step with the other posts but I am not sure how else to be in contact with you.
    Your philosophy of life resonates with my spirit and I believe your wisdom will help me.
    I’m so very sorry for your loss but I so admire your courage and strength! I believe we are out on this earth to help one another; a sort of “walking each other home”.
    I’m a nurse of 45 years and have comforted many patients on their journey home; but I know that through each encounter many times I walked away with so much more from them than what I gave!
    Thank you again for sharing your journey!

    • Thanks for commenting anywhere, Deb. This is fine. My exercise information stands the test of time. So does the nutrition, but I suggest people look at Better Bones website (https://www.betterbones.com) for more detailed and up-to-date information about nutrition, supplements, etc. A coach is helpful because good exercise form is essential. We have a large gym in this area that has exercise trainers skilled in helping people with bone health issues. Sometimes a physical therapist is the right person. I loved teaching classes on bone health, but that ended in 2011 after my husband died. I needed to focus on and write about grief.

      My husband’s death has been hard (isn’t it always when we love someone and share a life with them?), but also a teaching and opening to a new part of my life. Somehow or other, we keep on moving–which is why I love these Rilke lines so much. Thank you for the work you do as a nurse, Deb. It takes such compassion to see people through these scary times. I’m in awe of hospice nurses and get to know them because I volunteer at hospice. My angel nurse during my husband’s last days was a Vietnam War vet who was calm and kind and gentle. I’m forever grateful to him. I also wrote an “ode of gratitude and love” in my book ‘Leaning into Love’ to a nurse who tenderly washed my husband’s body, bandaged and blanketed him, and tended me when he was on life support after cardiac arrests. I will never forget Hamil’s kindness. It makes me happy to think my writing can support you.

  9. Elaine, I am always encouraged by your words, and reading the comments of your readers. Having Bipolar Disorder, I had to learn that “no feeling is final” in order to live without having the disorder take over my life.

    • I can only imagine what you live with Lynne. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I just suggested to a nature-loving friend who is very depressed to go outside and look for something beautiful. It’s a fairly reliable way for me to interrupt the downward pull. I imagine you picking up a paint brush.

  10. Thank you, Elaine, for this beautiful post. More than any other poetry, these lines by Rilke have gotten me through some hard moments and continue to do so, and I imagine I’ll be saying them to myself for as long as I am still alive.

    • Aren’t these lines wonderful, Anne? I loved writing about them. I loved memorizing these few lines and saying them to myself (and others) as I move through life’s challenges at this precarious moment in our world, our country, and our personal lives. I agree these lines will support me until the end of my time. Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ was so important to me while Vic was dying and after his death. I was fortunate to study them with a group that liked to dig deep into the meaning and feeling of his poems. Best to you, Anne, and thanks for your comment.

  11. Dear Elaine, I don’t know where to begin! As a poet I love numerous (and numinous!) poems, however, there are those verses that speak directly to the soul and cause the ego to surrender. “Lost” by David Wagoner and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry are two such poems that I often turn to when I need to be held by poetry’s loving, tender arms.

    The wisdom and wordsmith-ery of Rilke’s lyrically intense poem is profound, as is your own translation my dear friend! For they say good memoir writing only works when three vital ingredients are present. The first is that it must be a good story, the second, it must be well told and lastly the writing must be honest … and you deliver on all parts. However, for me, a desire for poetry is always there … and you excel this with a fourth aspect (one I feel is equally important!) in that there must be poetry in one’s writing too.

    Oh my Goddess, becoming ourselves is such an arduous task and not for the faint-hearted!

    I love the photos and art you’ve used and hope one day you’ll consider writing a 2nd memoir which may include some of them too. I agree with your readers, Rilke’s poem is beautiful. It makes me want to cry with joy, as I shudder in recognition of the deep, universal truth held within each line.

    Sacred poetry can be a lantern that illuminates the way for many of us as we move forward in our lives, and perhaps by extending our poetic hands to others … we may finally feel the myths coming alive in our own hands! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, my poet friend, I also love “Lost” and you probably remember I wrote about it. I love “The Peace of Wild Things,” too. I always love a touch of poetry and also mythology, but tend to write whatever pours out at that moment in my life. I’m re-reading Dancing in the Flames by Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickinson, a wonderful way to stimulate my mythological imagination and remember my love for Marion’s wild wisdom.

      Tomorrow I post a newly written love story and the piece includes a beautiful poem I read for the first time a few months ago. It grabbed me and hung on, so my writing started with that idea. I imagine you’ll love this poem and the anthology where I found it. I don’t know if I’ll write another memoir or what I’ll do. I’m trying to be restful and content as I adapt to the neurological challenge of learning to hear again. It’s a resting, healing time. I love writing meaningful stories, so I keep going with whatever grabs my attention. Right now my back porch is a Monarch caterpillar nursery. It’s the season! If I give them a fresh milkweed leaf and a dry environment safe from predators, they’re peaceful beings. I’m trying to learn from their slow measured pace. Love to you in the green times as I await your August poem.

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