A palette of simple things

Short-story writer Andre Dubus was born on this day (Aug. 11) in 1936. He wrote stories about regular people like bartenders, mechanics, and waitresses, maybe even like me. After an accident which resulted in the loss of one of his legs and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he said, “Some of my characters now feel more grateful about simple things – breathing, buying groceries, sunlight – because I do.” He also said, “We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”

Growing more grateful for simple things is something I’m learning about. Retirement, in which what I do for money or effect is stripped away, leaving exposed who I am for better or worse, can be an effective school of life. So can confronting my mortality. Surrendering position, status, role, influence, all the things that go with a career, along with the prospect of surrendering my life, to find joy in simple things, is becoming surprisingly and happily beneficial.

I’m not ready to agree with Dubus that “we just have to understand and survive the [lives] we’ve got.” We never “just” understand our lives; it’s never so simple as that except, perhaps, in some rarified moment of graceful enlightenment, the kind given to only a few. We gather clues about our lives, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that may suggest a portion of the whole picture. But we’re assembling the pieces without benefit of a box top to tell us what it will (“should”) look like. Or better, we’re creating the picture of our lives with an artist’s palette and brushes on a blank canvas with no paint-by-numbers outline.

Indeed, we don’t have to live great lives; we have to live this one. We don’t have to understand it; we can only trust its place in something greater than any possible understanding of ours can describe. And we can do so much more than survive it; we can be present, attentive, and responsive to it in ways that make it fuller, riper, more savory in its season.

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