Marianne Elliott

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A letter to my unanswered question

Saturday, October 8, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

I know you are not only mine. Everywhere I go I find people who know you, well. Who think of you as their own. I don’t mind. I understand. You have a universal appeal.

How can I live a good life? How will I know if I’m living one?

Please know, that although I am one of many who know you, and although you are one of many who keep me company, you are – for better or worse – never far from my mind. Please know, also, that you are in good company.

Will I regret not having children?

Will humans kill ourselves off in my lifetime? Or in our children’s lifetimes?

And if we do kill ourselves off, will the planet survive us?

Does it matter? And can I do anything to prevent it?

Why is it so easy to resist practicing yoga?

Why is it so hard to resist another glass of wine or another episode of Gossip Girl?

What’s the most important and useful thing I can do with my life?

Will I be ready for death when it comes?

Will I write another book?

Do I drink too much?

Do I spend too much time on Facebook?

Why is it so hard to write?

Am I a good person? How will I know if I am?

Am I a good daughter? Sister? Partner? Friend?

What do people say about me when I’m not there?

Do I really care?

Does not having children get me off the hook for all the flying?

Myriad though they are, they all lead me back to you: 

How can I live a good life? How will I know if I’m living one?

Thank goodness for books, and for the people who write them. Without them I would assume that you – and all the other unanswered questions I live with – were my own private form of madness.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” wrote Ranier Maria Rilke “like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

I confess, my dear locked rooms, I find it hard to love you. Would it be too much to ask for a glimpse through a crack in the closed door, or a clue at what lies behind it? And if you are a book written in a foreign tongue, surely there must be a way for me to learn to read you.

“Do not now seek the answers,” wrote Rilke, “which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So I’m living you, dear questions of my heart.

Is it more important to throw myself wholeheartedly into efforts to hold back climate change, preserve the ocean, protect threatened species, prevent wars, eliminate poverty, torture and slavery, reverse inequality, end discrimination and reduce suffering everywhere?’

Or is it more important to have time to call my grandmother every Monday afternoon, babysit for my friends, write letters to my cousins when their parents die, run errands, attend birthday parties, plant vegetables, tidy the house and run errands for my neighbours?

The trouble is that because you are unanswered, perhaps even unanswerable, I’m trying to live all of your possible answers.

I’m living the possibility that the world could be a fairer, kinder, safer, more just place, and that there’s a role for me to play in making it so.

I’m living the possibility that showing up for a friend when she needs me could be the most important thing I do with my life.

I’m living the possibility that the best thing I can do each day is get my yoga mat often and for long enough to bring a little bit of compassion and clarity to my world.

I’m living the possibility that the planet can be saved if we all throw ourselves behind the effort.

And I’m living the possibility that I would be happiest living in a cabin by the ocean, reading books, growing tomatoes and writing stories.

The trouble, dear questions, is that living you gets exhausting.

So maybe I’m doing it wrong? Live everything, said Rilke. Surely I’m not the only person who finds living everything a bit wearying.

How, therefore, should I live?

“My religion is very simple,” said the Dalai Lama, “My religion is kindness.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“We have not come here to take prisoners,” wrote Hafiz, “but to experience ever more deeply our courage, freedom and joy.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“We do whatever inspires people to help themselves,” wrote Pema Chödrön, “and whatever it takes to remove suffering.”

How, therefore, should I live?

“Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want?” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, “Do I want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy?”

Doesn’t everyone want to be happy, dear questions? But what kind of life leads to happiness? And how therefore should I live?

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe, “Use what you have. Do what you can.”

How, therefore, should I live?

The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. So I follow you, my questions. I start where I am. I use what I have. I do what I can. And I have no idea what this all adds up to or where it is taking me. But at least you give me a direction to keep moving in.

So there it is – my ever-present, unanswered and unanswerable questions – without you I’d be lost, or – more likely – paralysed. Because you are, despite all my complaints and whining, the only map I have.

If you want to keep getting my emails, please read this.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

Hello friends,  It has been a very long time since I wrote to you and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed the reflection of sitting down to write thinking ‘What have I seen or learned that might be useful’? I’ve missed the messages I get from you in response to my writing. I’ve missed the conversation. […]

The crime of being an unapologetic woman

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

I found this post this morning in my ‘drafts’. I wrote it in 2012 and when I read it I wondered why I had never finished or published it. Because I am as convinced now as I was then that a woman who dares make herself central to her creative work, and does so without shame or apology, is […]

Thoughts on tragedy, peace and justice

Monday, March 28, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

Like many people, I woke this morning to the devastating news that more than 60 people had been killed in a suicide bomb attack on a park in Lahore, Pakistan. The attack appears to have targeted a playground park on the Easter holiday specifically in order to kill Christians, and with the obvious intent of killing […]

Shall we start 2016 with some yoga?

Friday, January 1, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

It’s New Year’s morning in New Zealand. I’ve just finished doing the dishes from our New Year’s Eve party last night. I have a little bit of a headache, caused by a combination of too much bubbly wine and too little sleep, and a sore foot, caused by a combination of too much running and […]

On listening to Mary Oliver in the morning

Monday, November 30, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

There was a small blue and grey backpack hanging in a tree on Hornsey Rd. It’s zip hanging open, as though it had something to say. I noticed it, perhaps, because I’d been listening to you this morning, because you remind me to notice, to trust that noticing is worth my time and my attention. […]

Do you love a good story? This is for you.

Saturday, October 3, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

I’ve become someone who secretly looks forward to travel delays. If I get stuck on a train for an unexpected hour, no sweat. If my flight is delayed by a few hours, or I can’t find a good connection so I have to spend half a day in an airport in the middle of who-knows-where, […]

A story of change, Part IV

Saturday, September 26, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

This is the fourth and final part of a the story I told at the Extraordinary Tales event recently. You can read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here. After Afghanistan, I came home again. Home to Wellington, where I wrote a book about my experiences in Afghanistan, opened a restaurant […]

A story of change, Part III

Friday, September 25, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

This is the third part of a the story I told at the Extraordinary Tales event recently. You can read the first part here and the second part here. After five years at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission – with a new foundation of family and friendship to keep my feet on the ground, and bind […]

A story of change, Part II

Thursday, September 24, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

This is the second part of a the story I told at the Extraordinary Tales event recently. You can read the first part here. So – as Kim Hill put it – I walked off my divorce in Africa – what next? The walk ended in Jerusalem, where I stayed in a hostel run by […]

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