A couple of months ago I hurt a friend when I pushed a semi-joke too far. The friend didn’t say anything or change expression, but I went to bed uneasy. Despite the Painter’s assurances that he had noticed nothing and all was well, my gut said otherwise. I woke up and sent an apology, the gracious acceptance of which proved that my gut was right. In the weeks since, shame and sadness keep bubbling up in their familiar way. How many times a day do you feel like a failure? I once asked the Painter. All day every day, he answered, to which I nodded.
Four years ago, on a whim, I sat down at my dining table and hand-wrote myself a letter titled “Letter to Self.” Dear Alison, it began, here are some things you did in 2015. The letter is a simple bulleted list, but each entry, such as loved your children and stayed in good shape despite plantar fasciitis, holds within it an arc of emotion and effort and accomplishment. I hadn’t looked at the letter since I wrote it, nor the subsequent letters I wrote to myself in 2016 and 2017, but I read it again just now. Everything I tried to do that year came rushing back over me, along with a deep sense of being just one of a long line of humans who are all just trying. Which brings me to this beautiful farewell poem by Tony Hoagland. Its ending lines, which I had to read twice to understand were not an admonition but a gentle acknowledgment to himself that he had been a good man who should have been kinder to himself, brought me to tears.
Distant Regard, by Tony Hoagland
If I knew I would be dead by this time next year
I believe I would spend the months from now till then
writing thank-you notes to strangers and acquaintances,
telling them, “You really were a great travel agent,”
or “I never got the taste of your kisses out of my mouth.”
or “Watching you walk across the room was part of my destination.”
It would be the equivalent, I think,
of leaving a chocolate wrapped in shiny foil
on the pillow of a guest in a hotel–
“Hotel of earth, where we resided for some years together,”
I start to say, before I realize it is a terrible cliche, and stop,
and then go on, forgiving myself in a mere split second
because now that I’m dying, I just go
forward like water, flowing around obstacles
and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing
with my long list of thank-yous,
which seems to naturally expand to include sunlight and wind,
and the aspen trees which gleam and shimmer in the yard
as if grateful for being soaked last night
by the irrigation system invented by an individual
to whom I am quietly grateful.
Outside it is autumn, the philosophical season,
when cold air sharpens the intellect;
the hills are red and copper in their shaggy majesty.
The clouds blow overhead like governments and years.
It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I am grateful for it now,
and I am grateful for my heart,
that turned out to be good, after all;
and grateful for my mind,
to which, in retrospect, I can see
I have never been sufficiently kind.
For more information about Tony Hoagland, please read his obituary.