For a recent Year to Live class, we were asked to bring five objects that represent the most meaningful aspects of our lives. The task was to place these 5 things on a small altar in the classroom, where we could then explain them to our classmates. (There’s a powerful twist to this exercise, but I’ll get to that later.)
In the days before our class, I found myself going through all of my possessions, clutching photos of friends and places, wishing the teacher had asked for 10 things instead of 5. But being the ever-dutiful student, here’s what I came up with:
- A photograph of my family — including my children, my parents, an aunt who is like a second mother to me, and my nieces and nephews. It had been a perfect evening by the bay. Everyone was healthy, and we were almost giddy about being together.
- A photograph taken by my father-in-law of a lone apple tree which stands on their windswept property in upstate NY. I love this gnarled tree. The trunk is absolutely hollow, yet it supports the most incredible foliage and fruit season after season. The photo represents a profound appreciation of nature, as well as resilience and abundance.
- A piece of drift wood taken from the enormous message Dave left for me on the beach one morning years ago in drift wood, sea shells and pine cones: “Barbara, will you marry me?”
- A small clay Buddha made by one of my sons while we were on a family retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. It symbolizes the gifts of contemplation, compassion and community that I’ve found through studying mindfulness.
- A necklace made by desert women in North Africa. It was given to me by a human rights activist I worked with who became a true friend. A year ago she nearly died on a hunger strike, and I learned much about what it means to take a stand for what you believe in. The necklace represents my work, which is fulfilling and gratifying (most of the time!) because of people like her.
On the evening of our class, we set up our small altars side by side. I was blown away by the power of what everyone brought: photos, baby clothing, journals, sheets of music, cherished jewelry, an onion, a note from a lover before she died. All of it symbolizing the significance of our lives and the broader web that links us with the people and places around us.
Then came the twist. . . we were going to do a walking meditation around all of the altars, and each time we walked around we were to take one of someone else’s objects and put it under a cloth on the adjacent table.
Wait – did I hear that right? We were going to take one of these life treasures away from someone? And others were going to take away mine? Yes – that was the exercise.
I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through. The objects themselves I can live without. But what they represent, I cannot. If the very idea of the exercise was that painful to me, how could I inflict it on others by gathering up their things?
So we began the walking. And the taking. And the being taken from. First the photograph of the apple tree vanished. On the next rotation, the drift wood was gone, then the necklace, then the Buddha. I also picked up objects from others and placed them as carefully as I could under the cloth. I could hear some of my classmates quieting tears. Mainly, I was focused on the photo of my family. I nearly pleaded, “OK – I get the point. Let’s just stop the whole thing here.” In the next rotation, the picture of my family was gone. Then the very cloth that represented the altar was gone. I was gone.
There may be an element of ‘you just had to be there’ to this. But I can tell you that the experience felt like death itself. It shook me to my core, revealed all of my attachments, and demonstrated viscerally the lesson of impermanence. Up until that moment, I thought I was handling all of this study of death pretty well. Now I see that I had been holding it at arm’s length, dealing with it intellectually and in words.
There’s been much for me to reflect on as a result of that class, and the lessons don’t come easily to conclusion. But in the meditation that immediately followed the disappearance of our altars, I felt inexplicably hopeful and light. It was as if a source of great worry had been lifted. I wasn’t at all sure what it meant, but it seemed like a net good and I’m going to go with that.
I’d love to hear what 5 objects are most meaningful to you…