What the Living Do

What the Living Do is addressed to her brother, weeks after his death. It begins by detailing a particular morning, one which a person…could easily dismiss as a bad day. The kitchen sink is clogged, and Drano isn’t helping. The dishes are piling up. It’s cold outside, but the heat in the apartment is cranked up too high…driving a car, carrying a bag of groceries in the street, dropping the bag, spilling coffee, buying a hairbrush. How different all of those seemingly insignificant acts would look if we knew we would never get a chance to do them again.  We often hear self-help gurus talk about “living in the moment.” And it’s true we don’t appreciate “what is” nearly enough.”

The above quote is taken from a commentary on the poem “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe. My guess is that most of us think of poems as lofty language and rhyming verses, not words describing a mess in the kitchen and the everyday, often chaotic endeavors that make up our anything but ideal lives; “dropping the bag” and “spilling coffee” aren’t exactly the stuff of poetic gracefulness. But because we usually don’t appreciate “what is” until it’s too late, it is this element of our existence that Howe wistfully describes in her ode to her deceased brother,

We often tolerate, resent, or take for granted “what is,” never pondering “how different all of those seemingly insignificant acts would feel if we knew we would never get a chance to do them again.” We look ahead, we plan for the future, we say “see you later” when we part from one another, but we never know if there will be a ‘later,’ or if there will be another opportunity to drive a car or buy a hairbrush, or do any of the thousand things we plan to do tomorrow.

Everyday acts are usually done automatically. We often undervalue the people with whom we interact. And we ourselves, though temporary citizens of the earth, are frequently too busy to appreciate the brief and sometimes messy blessing of being alive. There is great wisdom in the simple phrase memento mori, memento vivere, remember death, remember to live. Even dropping a bag of groceries and spilling our coffee doesn’t seem so bad when we remember it’s only because we are alive that those things can happen.


3 thoughts on “What the Living Do

  1. Tom a great read . At 75 I need to take doing the repetitive task in life with a different attitude. Thanks Corrine


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