Some true stories.
On a tennis training trip to Florida last March, two months before his high school graduation, my son Jack felt something snap and spasm in his back. He’d played tennis through chronic pain for over a year, but this was different; the sudden jolt stopped him cold. He didn’t know in that moment that he’d just suffered two stress fractures in his L5 vertebrae, but he was pretty certain his final high school tennis season had just ended — before it had even begun. He knew, too, that his dream of being named captain of his team senior year would not come to pass. Later that same night, in pain but not yet diagnosed, he sat in a hotel room with some of his teammates. Drinks were poured and consumed. Jack and a friend put the empty liquor bottles into a knapsack and set out to carry them to a dumpster at a gas station up the road. On the way, they were intercepted by their coaches. By seven the next morning, Jack was on a plane home. One minute he had been president of his senior class, a star athlete with an early decision acceptance to his first-choice college. A day later, he was expelled from school, at home, and in bed with a broken back. His college acceptance was rescinded a few weeks after that.
My neighbor Debbie has managed the challenges of living with an ostomy for over twelve years, despite nearly constant blood loss and pain. When the oozing gets to be too severe, she undergoes a bowel cauterization, an uncomfortable procedure that has always been worth the result – a few months with less blood leaving her body, which means more energy and strength for her. In May, however, the cauterizing procedure that had worked well in the past had the opposite effect. Home from the hospital, Debbie bled continuously into her pouch for nearly a day. A friend and I drove her to the emergency room; halfway there, we realized she was losing consciousness and called an ambulance to meet us on the road. Debbie spent a couple of days in the ICU, stunned to realize just how close she had come to death’s door, just how fragile her condition really was. Back at home, she was weak, thin, exhausted – and still bleeding, uncertain whether her ravaged bowels and were healing or finally giving way altogether.
Up the road, just two miles from where we live, a young couple took over the farm where we have been CSA members for the past few years. The plan was for the elderly owner and his wife to slowly hand the farm over to Frank and Stacey, who have been working tirelessly from dawn till dark since early last spring, reclaiming and planting fields, building greenhouses, raising goats and pigs and chickens. We spent a day earlier this summer with our new neighbors at the farm, admiring the fruits of their labors – abundant vegetable gardens, happy animals, a lovely farm store well stocked with fresh, organic produce. A few weeks ago, when I stopped to buy kale from Stacey at the farmer’s market, I could tell she was upset. “We have to get rid of all the animals,” she explained, fighting back tears, “and as soon as we do, we have to leave the farm.” It turned out that the owner’s wife had decided she didn’t want animals being raised for meat on the property, and that was that. The deal was off.
“We’ve done the numbers every which way,” Stacey said sadly. “And we just can’t make a go of that property without the income from the animals.” Yesterday was Frank and Stacey’s final day at our local farmer’s market. They have found homes for all their animals, except for a few rabbits, which they are keeping. On Saturday the remainder of the garden’s bounty will go to the handful of CSA members and be offered for free at their roadside stand. Just as all the hard work of these last months is resulting in an abundant harvest at this beautiful old farm, the owner is meeting with real estate agents and developers, and Frank and Stacey are packing up to leave the place where they had hoped to sink their roots and stay forever.
On the early July day that Steve and I spent touring the fields and barns with Frank, he explained the origins of the new name he and Stacey had bestowed on the farm: “Amor Fati.” “It means ‘love your fate’ in Latin,” Frank said.
“We named the farm in memory of our best friend,” he continued, “who was planning to move here with us to farm this land. His motto was ‘amor fati.’ And that’s the way he lived his life, open to the world and loving his fate. He was killed in a car crash just before we moved to New Hampshire. But he would be here, farming right alongside us if he could. And so it seemed right that our farm, and our work here, should honor his memory and his great love of life.”
Amor fati. I have carried this resonant Latin phrase in my heart all summer. Love your fate. What a challenge that is, when what fate has to offer is not your dream come true but rather broken bones, stupid mistakes, dashed hopes, eviction notices, loss and pain and heartache. And yet, surely we are shaped as much by dashed hopes as by those that come to pass. We are strengthened not by the easy stuff, but by what brings us to our knees. And we realize our full potential as human beings as much by losing at the game of life as by winning.
To love your fate is to believe that the way things are right now is the way they are supposed to be – even if nothing is quite the way we wanted or expected. We can either go down swinging, or we can die to the way things were and begin instead to live into them as they are.
Jack has spent the summer in Boston, packing cards and rolling posters to earn money, and doing intensive stretching and physical therapy to heal his back. He has had to give up all the activities he loves and remain pretty much immobile, in the hope that given absolute rest, his bones will begin to knit back together. The most recent scan, a few weeks ago, showed just the slightest bit of new growth, a dim shadow of healing. Enough progress for his doctor to say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, and stay quiet for another six months, and then we’ll see.”
Last night, just as I was falling asleep, Jack called, wanting to talk about re-applying to college for next year. “I think getting thrown out of school and then having college taken away was probably for the best,” he said. “And having this broken back, the most horrible thing that’s ever happened in my whole life, has also made me a stronger, better person.”
I listened, phone to my ear in the dark bedroom, as my son acknowledged that the worst thing that had ever happened to him – a severe, possibly incurable back injury – had led him to the best thing that’s ever happened to him: intense daily stretching sessions with an extraordinary healer and mentor; work that is changing the way he feels in his body and the way he confronts the rest of his life. “I’ve had to change everything about the way I live,” Jack went on. “I’ve gone from being someone who lived totally for sports and for pleasure, to someone who realizes that there are other ways to live and be happy and healthy, and that’s huge.”
I agreed that it is, indeed, huge. “And so I think the fall is going to be mostly about applying to college again,” Jack said. “But I think I’m a better candidate now than I was a year ago. I’ve learned a lot. I feel as if I actually have something to offer.” Amor fati.
As I write these words, Debbie is outside, clipping faded stalks of coneflower and rudbeckia from my tangled August garden. “I worked hard for this little life of mine,” she said the other day, as she sipped the high-protein breakfast smoothie I make her each morning. “To be able to spend time in your garden, go to the pond with the dogs, and take a swim. It’s all I want. And every single day that I’m here, able to do what I love, I just look up and say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’.” Amor fati.
Stacey smiled yesterday when I told her how grateful we’ve been for their beautiful food all summer. “We want to come back in the spring,” she said, as she weighed my potatoes and filled a bag with arugula. “Everyone has been so kind and supportive to us. All the other farmers have been great. And this place has come to feel like home, where we belong.” For now, Frank and Stacey will move in with her aunt in Massachusetts; she will return to her old job, working with autistic children, while Frank begins to search for another farm, a small piece of land they can buy outright, where they can start all over again from scratch, dreaming and planting and living close to the earth. Amor fati.
The pain of life isn’t ever going to disappear. But perhaps it is in our efforts to open our hearts, to accept and work with what life hands us, that we grow our souls. Day by day, as we struggle to carry on in the face of grief and disappointment, we begin to see that even a great setback may contain a gift: the opportunity to discover, through practice, what lies behind sorrow. “How can we reconcile this feast of losses?” asks poet Stanley Kunitz.
Maybe the answer is this simple, this beautiful, this all-encompassing: Amor fati.