by Rainier Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
translated by Stephen Mitchell
This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.
And dying—to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day—
is like his anxious letting himself fall
into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.
I love this poem, and think of it so often, and yet not in regards to death, though that is, of course, what the poem is about. I am too agnostic to know whether I believe or not that there is a graceful letting go at the end of life. Rather, I think of this poem as a description of all those moments when suddenly you find yourself letting go into life itself, when suddenly you are at ease. When all that worries and troubles you lets go. When you simply are here, more or less. It is a state I sometimes discover in writing, the words flowing after days and days of nothing happening.
I thought of the poem a week ago when watching my daughter in labor, and then giving birth to the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. (Admittedly, I am a teensy bit prejudiced.) The long labor, the anxious waiting and worrying, and then the child, coming into the world with the water of life-- to be received and welcomed, the child so full of majesty and mystery in her own right. Really, it was a holy experience.