Wisdom Wills

Edith, north of Boston where, despite four-foot piles of snow, the amount of light in the sky is stunning, and the birds sound like spring. (But pity the crocuses…)

Jane Kenyon

I attended a thought-provoking workshop titled “Dynamic Aging” with twenty other Quakers Saturday morning. The facilitator, Carly Hellen, read several poems during the morning, one of which really struck me. It’s called “Otherwise,” and was penned by New Hampshire’s poet laureate, Jane Kenyon, some months before her death (at 48) when she didn’t yet know she was sick. Bear with me – I’m going to quote it in its entirety (from Collected Poems, Greywolf Press. 2005) :

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Each of us in the workshop shared an “otherwise” observation from our own lives. The observation I offered wasn’t, “I write stories that people want to read, and I get paid for it. It could have been otherwise.” But I easily might have shared that one.

How grateful I am, and I know all of the Wickeds are, that we get to do this thing called writing. And what a lesson that poem offers, that Carpe-the-Fuck-Out-of-This-Diem-Sockswhat we have right here, right now, is a blessing not to be overlooked: a day to be seized. In that spirit, I offer these wonderful and irreverent socks I saw on Facebook recently thanks to author Lisa Alber. (Apologies to anyone offended by the language. Definitely not cozy territory!)

Another topic Carly covered during the morning was Wisdom Wills. These are sometimes called Legacy Wills or Ethical Wills. They aren’t legal documents, but are meant to be given to those you love, either while you’re alive or after your passing. They can also be used in writing your obituary and in your memorial service. Clearly none of us expects to die any time soon (let’s hope not!). Also clearly – think of Jane Kenyon – we have no idea when our time will come. 

One example of a Wisdom Will that Carly gave us stemmed from four questions: Who am I? Who have I become? What matters to me? What do I wish for you? Other examples included anecdotes about the person’s parents and grandparents; an essay about the person’s values, hopes, experiences, and stories; a collection of poetry. President Obama wrote a version of a wisdom will in the form of a letter to his daughters before he took office. 

I find this idea deeply moving. Years ago,  just after my divorce, I made sure I had a legal will, and in it I included a paragraph addressed to each of my then-teenaged sons, telling them what I loved about them and hoped for them. It’s time to amend that now that they are in their twenties, but I think I’ll keep the original in there, too. And I plan to make time to write my own Wisdom Will sometime soon. Before my scheduled shoulder surgery on March 24 would actually be a great time, come to think of it. Maybe I’ll find a way to work this topic into one of my books, too.

What about you? Have you made some version of a Wisdom Will? Do you even have a legal will? Anybody not in the “seize the day/carpe diem” school of life? Or, perhaps more pertinent to this blog – how do you see any of us using this in our fiction?

23 Thoughts

  1. What a great idea. I have all the other legal papers, but will have to start writing one of those Wisdom wills. Jane Kenyon was a sweet young lady.

  2. What a lovely idea. Those of us who research our family’s history are so aware at how little we know of the people who came before us, yet who helped make us who we are. We can see where they lived, what they bought and sold, where they’re buried–but not what they thought. It’s too bad everyone can’t leave a brief essay for those who follow.

    And I want those socks for my daughter, who turns 30 this month and is doing her own thing in theater in Chicago.

    1. Agree about our ancestors, Sheila. I have some lovely journals from my grandfather on his “European tour” when he was sixteen. The weather, what he ate, and who he and his older sister visited were the primary topics. Fun stuff. And I also have one of my four great-aunt’s journal from when the family took two automobiles from Indiana to Oregon in about 1920, with my grandmother, the eldest, and her next-younger sibling, the only boy, driving one car. My grandmother was 18. They camped much of the way across, and the roads were not very well suited for cars.

      Google the socks!

  3. I think this is a good idea. Now that my parents are gone, I’m aware of how much family lore currently ends with me. I think though my Wisdom Wills are my scrapbooks. I have done them for each child and for every trip and for some special places and relationships.

    Though the truth is I have some scrapbooks of my paternal grandmother and some Victorian great-great aunts, and they don’t tell me much about them as people.

      1. Barb and Edith, this is so interesting. Or poignant? A year or so before our Jeanie died, she had her children’s grandparents put together a series of comments in the form of responses to questions she sent out. They were geared to help her create a memory book for her children to pass along to theirs when they had their own families. She used the scrapbook format, because it allowed her to incorporate photos, hand written poems, and other mementos reminiscent of some of their grandparents’ memories. When the scrapbooks were completed, each child had something tangible to appreciate and pass along to the next generation. We love that she did that. Many of the memories were about others in the family and included some of previous generations. What a beautiful gift to the future.

  4. Wisdom Will. Hadn’t heard about that, but I will have to put some thought into what I might say in one. (I’m a guy who distracts himself from deep thoughts.)

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go seize this day. Those variances aren’t going to analyse themselves.

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