To make routine a stimulus / Remember it can cease / Capacity to terminate– / Is a specific grace. Emily Dickinson
I love new beginnings. January first, the summer solstice, the start of the academic year (no matter that my student years are long passed, that Tuesday after Labor Day will always put a spring in my step as I phantom-smell sharpened pencils), my birthday, a fresh project or job — you name it, if it marks the commencement of a new temporality or experience, I’m making plans and setting goals around it.
While beginnings are steeped with energy and perspective, I’ve come to realize that it’s not beginnings that invigorate me so much as recognizing that ends accompany every beginning. 2019 resolutions fire me up because I have just a year to complete them. My 29th birthday takes on special significance because it marks the beginning of the end of a decade. Time with a newborn is especially sweet because everyone knows that infancy — and all stages of childhood, for that matter — pass quickly. Summer’s long days fade into fall, vacation weeks feel as if they end as soon as they start (even if the sand lingers for weeks) and seasons of participation in sports or other activities fly by.
Keeping the end of things in mind moves me to treasure — and make the most of — the present.
The narrower the gap between the beginning and the end, the easier it often is to recognize the impermanence of an experience and fully lean into the present moment. But the longer the experience, the more likely we are to get lost in the monotony of the routine and to lose sight of importance of the everyday moments — the glimmers of light, our capacity to do something good with what time we have, the importance of not wasting what time we have.
How, then, can we remind ourselves that routines eventually cease, that life and the events of it not only have the capacity to terminate, but inevitably will?
I’ve heard before that Mary Moody Emerson, the eccentric aunt and spiritual mentor of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had her bed built in the shape of a coffin and slept wrapped in a burial shroud to remind herself of her mortality. These are odd practices that I doubt many of us would want to employ, but her impulse to set a visual reminder to keep the end in mind was a wise one, I think. Emerson wanted her everyday to take on the weight of the-end-of-her-days; she knew that the knowledge of ending had the potential to infuse the mundane of the middle with meaning. What wisdom! The ability to recognize the value of our present moment — no matter how ordinary, repetitious or interminable it may seem — is, in the words of Emily Dickinson, a “specific grace.”
Reflect: What am I experiencing in life right now that seems unending? How does knowing that it will eventually end change my perspective of it?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.