redux: the unlived life


It wasn’t this doe and her young that appeared down by the crabapple tree this morning but another, and just one fawn, most of its spots gone but a few sprinkled across its back. I chased them into the woods because the greenhouse was open and the honeysuckle is spilling over the garden gate, waiting for me to coax it along the top of the fence. I chased them into the woods and then ten minutes later they were on the other side of the house, exploring the grass just below my study window. This time I used the Indian cowbell I keep handy to use as a dinner bell (but always forget to ring) and they bolted into the woods just about where the doe in the photograph is leading her young. There’s a game trail there and it meanders–I’m supposing; I’ve never taken it– down to Sakinaw Lake, a reliable water source for animals this time of year. We’ve just returned from a walk beyond the Malaspina substation, the first time in ages, and I’ve never seen it so dry, the little creeks dried up, the blackberries hard and shrivelled on their canes. Well, most of them. We found enough to make a crisp, a mixture of Himalayans and cutleafs, a last song of summer for tonight’s dessert.

How did it get to be so late? In summer, in history, in my own life? I saw a link in my newsfeed the other day to a piece on how to come to terms with the unlived life–I didn’t click!–but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The unlived life. What does that mean? The life in which I might have been more productive, a singer, thinner, with spotlesss rooms, immaculate linen (doing the laundry yesterday, I scrubbed at strange marks on our linen sheets and sighed bringing them off the clothes line, still marked), tidy book shelves, maybe a PhD in botany, travel to Iceland and Siberia, kinder to those with whom I disagree, a better friend, a more generous and patient mother. In that unlived life, I hope I would still have met and married John, though I hope I would have been (again) more patient.

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love

In that unlived life, would I describe myself now, 42 years later, as “wild with love”? I’m not. I’m dense with it, rich with it, but no longer wild. I reach for my husband’s hand in sleep. I massage his injured foot. He is my dearest companion. We have lived through so many seasons that they have become a river of memory.

Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.

How did it get to be so late? The other day I needed my address book to label a birthday parcel for Henry and I was surprised at the number of names I’ve made little stars beside, with the word “Deceased”. Family members, friends, people who weren’t either but with whom I had long and interesting correspondence. Names of those who are still alive but who have disappointed me, or me them. Someone John has known since he was 21 (he’s now 73) and who behaved in a way that seemed at the time unforgivable now lies in a hospital bed, no longer truly himself. John, the more generous in our relationship, made a visit to the hospital but the old friend, old betrayer, was asleep, so he left again, saddened. In the unlived life, I might have sent flowers with him, sweet roses and fragile pink Japanese anemones. In this life, I didn’t. Though perhaps it’s not too late.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Would the unlived life have been like this one, full of sweetness and sorrow, full of dry grasses on the mountain path, hard berries, deep shade where the trail winds through a grove of bigleaf maples and a single balsam fir, where when sleepless you turn in your bed and there’s someone warm to tuck yourself up against, would the unlived life have been a long gift of mornings by the fire, listening to rain, or would it have put children on your lap for stories, your own children and theirs, and would you come across a photograph of your love and you, impossibly young, the secret of your firstborn in your smiles on that August afternoon 41 years ago?


Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.


Note: the passages of poetry are by the glorious Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me”, “The Layers”, and “Passing Through”.

8 thoughts on “redux: the unlived life”

  1. I remember this from when it was first posted. Somehow, it is even more meaningful and relatable to me today than it was then. Such honest thoughts.

  2. That is beautiful, Theresa. (Why did I think to check in today, when the family has left for parts near and far?)
    Yes, “The life unlived.” But I happen to think that the life we live, if we have been lucky enough to freely chose it, is the one for us, with all its successes and failures, light and shade.

    1. Yes, wise words, Anne. No argument from me. But occasionally there’s a shimmer in the air, in the heart, and you see what wasn’t clear before — a path into another territory altogether. And you wonder.

  3. And there are the uniived lives of the future. I am on holiday in Sardinia. On a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, with a hot sun moderated by a cool breeze, quiet but for the sound of bees and goat bells. A breakfast with real cappuccino, fresh melon, local cheese, and honey with the fragrance of eucalyptus flowers
    I could stay and live out my days here. But that will be a life unlived. I return in two weeks to my good life in Canada

    1. That sounds so lovely, John. And in a couple of hours I’m heading off on a boat to a remote inlet, a place I’ve dreamed off visiting, in part the locus for something I’m writing. Tonight I’ll be sleeping on water, just one night, but I can’t wait. The unlived life suddenly lived, breathing, contextual, lit by stars, waterfalls, old and new histories in the wind.

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