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To Live is to Function

In this symposium my part is only to sit in silence. To express one’s feelings as the end draws near is too intimate a task. But one thought that comes to me as a listener-in. The riders in the race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to oneself that the work is done.

But just as one says that, the answer comes: The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains. The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be while you still live, but to live is to function. That is all there is. And so I end with a line from a Latin poet, who uttered the message more than fifteen-hundred years ago, Death, death, plucks my ear, and says, ‘Live. I am coming.'”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes (from a radio broadcast when he turned 90)

This image Holmes painted of cantering after the race is over, living but not quite in the race anymore, lingers. I’ve seen a few people who’s cantering ended sooner than we all wanted, but bless them, they were cantering to the end. Their work was done, and they functioned as best they could until they left us. And whispered a reminder that soon our own race will end, so best run it well.

The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest.

My own race took me around a snowy loop in the woods again yesterday, snowshoeing in deep snow, following cross-country ski tracks in a quiet patch of woods that doesn’t see a lot of action from the conservation land walking crowd. Just me and a trusty map, making my way alone in the woods, working up a sweat with a brisk pace as I broke trail next to the ski tracks. This, the morning after, I stepped out of bed gingerly to test the legs and found myself doing okay. Looking back on February so far, I’ve gotten out to snowshoe or hike most days. For I’m still very much in the race, after all, and far be it from me to start cantering now.

To live is to function – to be out there in the world doing. A challenge to us all from Holmes, all those years ago. To be engaged with those around you, to be charging around the track of life all frothy and full of joyous exuberance at full gallop. Holmes was a Civil War veteran, wounded in battle, a Harvard-educated lawyer who rose up to the Supreme Court and the oldest serving member of that court. A living link between Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He lived in Mattapoisett and Beverly, Massachusetts and by all accounts lived a rich, full life during his own time in the race.

Death, death, plucks my ear, and says, ‘Live. I am coming.’

How do you read these words spoken by Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly a hundred years ago? As a reminder to get out and live while you’re still in the race? Or as a dark reminder that death is coming for us all? To me the only choice is the former. To have Holmes quote the stoics near the end of his own life, well into his cantering years, is a wake-up call for the generations lining up for the races after his own. Fast forward to today and now it’s our race. So how shall we run it?

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  1. Or why ever come to a standstill? Ok, maybe a rest and some cantor only near the end. But always in the race, in one form or another, sometimes more rigorously than others. Just as before, then there’s nothing again.

    1. Standstill is the end: death. Holmes was in the race into his 90’s, That’s my plan too, maybe deeper into the race than that if fate allows. I think that was his point, to keep on going, even if it’s just a canter towards the very end. We’re far from the end (hopefully), and have much to do and be and become.

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