Photo by Lourdes Nicholls

As September turned to October, one of those enormous celebratory lawn signs appeared for a few days in front of the building across the street. Extremely large letters, colorful, decorated with exploding firework imagery.

The message, in two lines, was:

“Good Job —

Not Dying!”

Not a sign you see every day. Looking out my bedroom window in the morning, I imagined the message was for me. My first thought: “If the universe is sending a message, couldn’t they have set the bar a bit higher?”

It reminded me of a line from a Mary Oliver poem: “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”

There is more in the poem “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?”

Well, there is time left —

fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away

from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one’s foot into the door of the grass, which is

the mystery, which is death as well as life, and

not be afraid!

To set one’s foot in the door of death, and be overcome

with amazement! …

For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,

caution and prudence?

A worthwhile reminder, but I don’t think that’s what this sign was about. More likely it was for someone who was expected to die, or at deep risk of it, and somehow, against all odds, pulled through. Cause for celebration.

But maybe the message was still applicable to me. Maybe to all of us.

Good job — not dying: a message for every single morning. For some, a major achievement, worthy of the biggest sign you can find.

I remember author Joyce Carol Oates talking about Ernest Hemingway’s famous flaws, his stormy life and relationships, and his suicide, for which so many judge him harshly:

“I think we are expecting something of him that he was not able to provide,” she said. “His father had committed suicide. He was deeply insecure. He made out of the material of his life a very beautiful and lasting monument to just getting through it. He lived to be about 62 and then he killed himself. But he might have died much younger. … There is something heroic in these people enduring as long as they did — especially Hemingway, who was haunted by the possibility of dying by suicide all through his life.”

Some of us fight a greater battle to keep living. Some fight that battle their whole lives. In the final analysis, most of us probably live as long as we can.

There’s a new book out I’d like to read, Life is Hard, by philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, who has suffered from chronic pain for many years, yet argues that living well and hardship are not incompatible. A reviewer writes: “There is no single good life for everyone, he argues at the beginning. Such lives can include — but do not require — feeling happy. They involve the well-being of others, not just your own. … A good life also need not require you to define, let alone pursue, an ideal one. ‘The best is often out of reach.’ … Attentive readers of this humane, intelligent book will come away with a firmer grasp and better descriptions of whatever it is that ails them or those they cherish.”

I’ve been attending numerous funerals and memorial services lately. One friend, who had everything to live for, died suddenly at the age of 70. Another, who died at 75, was deeply afraid of death his entire adult life, but possibly even more afraid of life. Most of us would say he was undone by his fears, yet he found his niche in a place most of us would fear to tread, much less make our residence for decades. Two others, Frank Muriello and Ginie Cassin, lived long, full lives into their 90s and served this village with great distinction. They deserve the respect they earned. Frank’s memorial service was last weekend, Ginie’s takes place this weekend.

There are many reasons people live into their 90s, which can’t be easy, no matter how good your circumstances are. But I’m pretty sure one of the reasons they live that long is because they want to.

Good job — not dying.

Last week I had my annual wellness exam (Medicare terminology) and I’m in reasonably good health. I’m also, finally, getting around to arranging for my “Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare,” naming an “agent” and choosing one of three options to guide that person in making decisions about my care in the event that I’m unable to. I chose not to have my life prolonged, “nor do I want life-sustaining treatment to be provided or continued if my agent believes the burdens of the treatment outweigh the expected benefits.” Sobering language.

In the meantime, I hope to keep doing a good job of not dying, but I don’t want to end up “breathing a little and calling it a life.”

While I’m not dying, I want to do a good job of living.

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