The worth of taking stock

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By Elizabeth Berg

Contributing reporter

What needs to happen in your life for you to take a serious accounting of it? 

Most of us, it seems, rarely have time for the kind of contemplation that would allow for an intimate and honest appraisal of ourselves and the way we move through the world. We are busy — with our jobs, with our families and friends, with focusing on what comes next, rather than on what we've already done. We might think, Why bother? You can't change the past. 

It's true that you can't change the past. But an honest examination of our past can help us make changes for our futures, before it is too late. A beautiful novel I just read reminded me of the importance of periodically evaluating my life, lest it go by without my having done what matters most to me. 

 It seems I must constantly relearn that the only constant in life is change. I get settled into a way of being, and then — bam! — something changes. Maybe it's physical. Maybe it's psychological. But something changes, and I'm not quite the person I was. I'm not in need of or desiring the things I used to; I might want or need things I never wanted or needed before. These changes can be deep — a need for spirituality, or love, or a need to make a strong political statement. They can be superficial — I think here of my partner, Bill, who, when explaining his distaste for salmon, says, "I just woke up one day and didn't like it anymore!" 

Whatever the changes, I think what's crucial is that they be honest, made because they honor what is the essence of you, not what somebody or something else thinks you should be. I believe we all have an inner wisdom that can guide us to a rich and satisfying life. The trick is in learning to listen to it. 

I once quit a great editorial job because somehow I knew it would bury me. I remember walking home on that spring day, exuberant. I had no prospects for what to do next, no money saved. When I called the boy I loved to distraction and whose opinion I valued more than anyone's (including, alas, my own), he chastised me severely. Ordinarily, his disapproval would have killed me. Not this time. I knew I was right; I felt it in the exact center of my breastbone as a kind of wild joy. I felt I'd found my own true north. 

Later, I made another major decision that was horribly wrong, one that's too personal to discuss here. But I felt it in my gut like an illness. For weeks, I woke up in the night with a voice saying, Don't do this. But I did it anyway. Many years later, I still live with the guilt and the complications and the wrongness of that decision. 

The novel I read, Evensong, is written by a remarkably talented writer named Kate Southwood. The book is about a woman at the end of her life, thinking about a disastrous choice she made. As the publicity material for this book states, "A woman's life is full of stories — some told and some untold. … We meet [a woman] negotiating even on her deathbed. … [This character] has been a daughter, a sister, a sweetheart, a wife, a widow — and the identities blur and overlap to form an intensely moving portrait."

I finished reading it with great admiration, and with growing awareness of the imperative to keep tabs on the way I'm living and why. It made me stop, however briefly, and look at what I'm doing day-to-day with an eye toward deciding whether I want to continue living this way. (Answer? No. Changes are on the way!) 

I hope you will come to hear Kate Southwood on Saturday, May 20, which will be our final Writing Matters event. She's coming from Norway, on her own dime. Come to see what lyrical writing is and can do. Come to enjoy the wine, desserts, surprises and camaraderie. Most of all, come to see if you, too, are not moved to a closer examination of your own life. 

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