Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2023 - Volume 23, No. 5
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A Matter of Life Change

The other day, I pulled from my living room bookshelf a small volume I’d long forgotten - a small paperback with a blue cover by the American poet, William Stafford, with the title “You Must Revise Your Life.”[1]

I don’t remember when or why I purchased it, perhaps Robert Bly had mentioned it. And strange I didn’t write (always in pencil) inside the cover the date I first read it. But I know I read at least part of it, because I had checked or underlined particular parts in pencil - my way of marking a book as my own. Like an animal marking it’s territory. Like a church procession on Rogation Sunday[2], walking the boundaries of the parish. Like a priest with candle and incense (or holy water) blessing each room of a house.

Then, opening to page 3, there was a heading:
   William Stafford: 1914 -
to which I added (in ink!) the date 1993 (30 years ago!).

The date year of his death was specific and final - therefore it needs be in ink (not pencil).

That’s what Stafford was teaching his readers and students - that if you are a writer, and you find that the writing takes a particular twist or turn of its own - you need to follow it. And it may necessitate you to ‘Revise Your Life.’ I remember that’s why I bought the book - the title says it all.

You must change your life

Many of the folks who enter my office door are hesitant to enter. There’s a fear that they might have to change (revise) something. It’s tempting and easier to project that necessity onto someone other, even a partner, or family member. “Here, doc, you change (this other person).” Or, at least, make it so change on my own part won’t be so difficult - or painful. My ‘job’ is at least to make it less painful. Or, sometimes, to make it more possible, or even ‘rich’. It can take a lot of courage to walk through that door - and I honor that.

Recently I’ve been refering to my work as “midwifing” necessary or desired changes in my clients’ lives. So something new and maybe wonderful can be born.

Then there’s the question, can the change be just in ‘pencil’ (fairly safe), or must it now be more in ‘ink’ (more serious, enduring, permanent)?

In my own recent case, opening Stafford’s small volume was initially to find some guidance for ‘the folks out there’ about the necessities in life of having to make life changes. But then, taking Stafford more seriously, the simple act of making a change in the book in ink caught me (almost literally) dead in my tracks. William Stafford wrote this little book and then since I bought it, he died.

That personally forced me to acknowledge that at my own advancing age, I have been dealing with the “dropping off” of more and more people who have inhabited my life. Talk about having to “revise my own life…”

I come from a small family, and to my knowledge nobody for some generations back has lived as long as I already have. I’m essentially living in ‘unknown territory’.

To wit also:
 - A year and a half ago while visiting in Florida, I came close to dying myself - spending a week and a half in a cardiac hospital bed.
 - Just over a week ago I visited in her home, a client for some years, to say good bye only a few hours before she passed over.
 - I’ve noticed for awhile now, when I look around my house, I’m beginning to see my ‘stuff’ in terms of what my children will have to deal with then I’m gone.
 - I need to update portions of my will.
 - The disciplines of diet and exercise are even more important now.
 - With Covid, many thousands around us have died.
 - Many, too many, innocents are dying by deliberate gunshot, weekly, almost daily now.
 - Maybe that’s why I write these monthly Newsletters - to leave a part of myself as a legacy. So my children can know me better. Or perhaps as the fantasy of some immortality.

An Endnote story.

When I am with my Native American friends, and we gather for a meal (potluck style), it is our ritual that after blessing the food, we dine by age, “elders first.” I used to think this was simply honoring the elders. But then I realized it was because the elders would always make sure there was enough to go around so everybody had enough. If the children went first they would probably take as much as they wanted, without concern for those who come after.

As we age, the more we change, we revise our life behaviors, toward preserving life for those who will follow us. We ‘revise’ our life to preserve and enhance the lives of those who will in due course take our place.

What a magnificent ethic![3]

Pay Attention


[1] from a series ‘Poets on Poetry’, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1986.

[2] Traditionally for Anglicans and Roman Catholics, the fifth Sunday after Easter.

[3] And conceivably a functional counter to narcissism.

Comments (3)

  • I always feel better after reading your newsletter. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    — Jim Farley, 5/12/2023
  • I love this piece of writing! Very profound and right on the mark!

    — Andrea Casey, 5/12/2023
  • Where I am

    I once couldn’t discuss with you if my “work” was what I should be doing. To say I had chosen wrong was to accept years of work that effected my child as well and negatively. Thank you for this letter that comes after some pretty tough inner time for the last three years as I discharge my library. Yeah, the books. I felt as though I was tearing apart who I am – I see now that it was more like who I was, or thought I was. Your letter affirms the sweet peace of letting go. The books I am keeping bring me warmth, returning to the inner journey that got a swift kick some 35 years ago when I accumlated what I was supposed to have, the voices of all the authorities who said what I was supposed to know and do. I really do have to laugh. LOL Still – I have work to do and not enough time to do it in probably – to write the best obituary ever – to leave the notes for my child to know what the old stuff around my home is. If she pitches them, maybe she’ll get a good price for them. But who wants to prepare too much for the next stop – for I have miles and miles to keep before I sleep. It seems appropriate to say, Blessed Be, Bill. Thank you.

    — Cynthia, 5/12/2023

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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