ON MY 71st BIRTHDAY

I am still alive but why

silvery grass that withers

at the touch of the snow

Bashō


I’m in a village called Oughterard, 40 minutes or so outside Galway, and the weather is the opposite of Tucson–it’s in the low 60s every day, usually cloudy and very often raining or drizzling.

I hung a load of laundry on the line yesterday afternoon and it poured in the night. So you bring the clothes in and put them on this item called a hot press…it’s all very different from our Southern California and Southwest ways! But I at least escaped the extreme heat warning with which poor Tucson has been saddled for weeks now. I guess they got a monsoon earlier in the week, though, I heard from a friend. I kind of miss it. Whatever else, the weather there is dramatic (though it is here, too, in its way). 

Anyway, I’m house-sitting for friends here who sold their house in the Hollywood Hills just before COVID hit and moved here–they’ve gone back to America, as the Irish call the States, to care for the guy’s elderly mother.

Apparently the peonies will be out here in a bit! Hydrangeas are huge–my friend Jamie has three or four different colors, and there are lilies, roses, a butterfly bush, a smoke tree, some iris and assorted wildflowers. Massively tall trees, including bay, horse chestnut and sweet chestnut. They have an orchard with lots of apple trees and a plum tree on which the fruit should be ripe next month. Blackberries abound on the “verges”…the area on either side of the lane that’s filled with ferns, bracken, and wildflowers. So all that rain gets put to good use. 

The Church of the Immaculate Conception with Father Michael is right around the corner. 10 am Mass on Tuesdays and Fridays with Adoration after, and other Rosaries and night-time Masses and of course the Saturday Vigil and Sundays 8:30 and 11.

Sullivan’s, the greengrocer up the street, has delicious bread and pastries, plus cheese, farm produce, coffee etc. I was with my hosts, Jamie and Karl, for a week but they left Monday. I have a cat, Phinn, to keep my company, and the donkeys Bernie and Barry in the meadow down the lane.

I plan to do a lot of sitting and looking out the window. 


Last week we were out to dinner with friends of my hosts and the guy, who has worked as a spiritual advisor and therapist, said that one of the questions he asks is, “How would I tell from the way you live that you know you’re going to die?”

Interesting, right?

Without even thinking, I said, “Maybe you wouldn’t travel at all any more, for one thing, but would just sit and look out the window.”

The punchline to the question, of course, no matter how you answer, is: “Then why aren’t you doing that now?”

So I thought of that later. Why am I not just sitting more and looking out the window? One answer is that I did spend about a week before I left for Ireland propped up in bed and gazing out the French door that leads from my Tucson bedroom to the mesquite-and-agave-shaded front yard. Gazing, pondering, not thinking of much of anything, praising.

But that’s the thing with life. There’s no formula. Would you blow all your money, for example, or conserve it in case you lingered on for many years BEFORE you died? Would you spend more time with people, because human connection is good and life-enriching; or would you spend more time alone, because some of us are meant for silence and solitude?

Would I spend more time writing, because my hope is that my writing is an offering to the world; or would I spend more time resting and rejuvenating, because I’m no good to anyone if I’m tired and wrung out?

Would I keep moving, or stay still?

The way someone would know from my life that I know I’m going to die, if they knew at all, would be from my inner life. My secret thoughts. No-one can really, tell–maybe we can hardly tell ourselves–what the guiding force is that drives us. Because I know I’m going to die I go to Mass. Because I know I’m going to die I pray. Because I know I’m going to die I weep.

Because I know I’m going to die I stay very close to Christ.

After 70, I find, you live with a kind of permanent sob in the throat. I don’t mean you’re always depressed. But there’s a shadow that is simply not there, is not meant to be there, when you’re young. No outward action can do one tiny thing to alleviate the knowledge that we’re going to die.

I like this reflection from John Henry Newman:

 ‘If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first – Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.’

Nothing heroic, but everything ordered. You can adhere to that order even if exhausted, upset, sorrowful, anxious.

Keeping out the bad thoughts is to my mind by far the most challenging part.

When I arrived in Ireland last week, I was just about dead. (What’s nice is that I’ve also met Dermot, the local undertaker). A lot of travel this year, a lot of doctor and dentist visits, a lot of mental and emotional energy expended. A lot of planning to be away from home for almost three months.

I feel my strength returning, though. Last night I went to bed early, woke at 12:30 am, and spent four hours lying in bed planning a trip the first two weeks of September to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Prague, and Budapest.

Who knows if it will come to pass but one way I show my knowledge that I’ll die is by trying fully to live (that’s the real question: what does “living” mean to each of us?) BEFORE I die.


a cicada shell

it sang itself

utterly away

—Bashō

26 Replies to “ON MY 71st BIRTHDAY”

  1. Betsy Acciani says: Reply

    Thank you for telling us what is blooming and what is growing where you are. So much variety there. It’s fun to hear what grows in other parts of the world.

    Also thanks for this:The way someone would know from my life that I know I’m going to die, if they knew at all, would be from my inner life. My secret thoughts. No-one can really, tell–maybe we can hardly tell ourselves–what the guiding force is that drives us. Because I know I’m going to die I go to Mass. Because I know I’m going to die I pray. Because I know I’m going to die I weep. Because I know I’m going to die I stay very close to Christ.

    I want to be there with you on these things.

  2. Sonja Maierhauser says: Reply

    Dear Heather, thank you for writing this post. As I sat here reading, I felt as though you are a friend checking in with us, letting us know the details of the cat and the undertaker, that you are ok. And indeed you are a friend to me and to so many with your writing.

  3. Sonja Maierhauser says: Reply

    And happy Birthday!

  4. Love this! Thank you

    Happy Birthday!

    May God grant you many more.

  5. Michael Ryan says: Reply

    Many poignant messages here. My pick is slow down and look out the window.

  6. tina daoud says: Reply

    hi heather
    july 18 was my birthday so we are having our birthdays close!
    i think i live as if i have to die tomorrow – and it would change nothing. if everyday i do my best, if i am oriented to God, if i live as a christian then i will be content when fear strikes.
    and so i do.
    and i remind myself very often” salvation belongs to the Lord” as it says in a psalm.
    christianity deals with fear. as a christian i “do not fear, do not be dismayed.i the Lord will go with you wherever you go” wherever I go.
    i also say to myself as i read somewhere that all the way up to the end of life it is life.so that means live. do not be frightened of life. use it as the material that God gave you as a connection to him.
    i am only 62 but i know the shadow you are talking of. so what!
    salvation belongs to the Lord!and He belongs to me and i to him!
    your friend tina

  7. Thank you for this writing, at 75 l now spend time in my thoughts on dying. For me it is trying to be the best version of me as the clock winds down. So much of our time in our prime is just trying to cover all our bases and squeeze out a little time for Christ. Your writings have helped me to realize that in the end it will never end.

  8. A very happy birthday from a eighty year old. I love your musings, especially your thoughts on death, Regina

  9. townetribe says: Reply

    Have a very blessed birthday! Ireland is a great place to celebrate the day–cheers!

  10. Tiffany Peterson says: Reply

    Happy Birthday, sweet Heather! I so appreciate and look forward to your writing. It helps regulate me and also brings that sense of wonder as well as thoughtfulness, so thank you. Bless you.

  11. Oh boy, Cardinal Newman says it so well, and I’m not doing any of that very well. Happy Birthday, Heather!

  12. Happy Birthday! And God bless you!!

  13. Teresa Kleber says: Reply

    Heather, thank you for describing the sob in the throat. And I love JHN. Get well. Rest. And eat that good food. Donkeys are the best!

  14. Teresa Kleber says: Reply

    Happy Birthday, Heather!

  15. Welcome to Galway Heather!
    I’ve just discovered your great blog this evening. Lots to read and catch up on!! Love the film recommendations too.
    Njoy your break in Ireland and travels in Europe. Happy Birthday 🤗

  16. Lisa Porter says: Reply

    Happy birthday, dear Heather!

  17. Melanie Poser says: Reply

    The way people would know that I know I’m going to die you listed. Mass, Rosary, adoration. Also when things are planned l say, God willing. Happy Birthday! Beautiful Ireland.

  18. Susan Manus says: Reply

    Happy Birthday Heather! May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.

  19. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Thank you for those thoughtful, heartfelt birthday wishes! I am finding my footing here in Oughterard. Very grateful.

  20. Bonnie Lewis says: Reply

    Happy Birthday Heather! What a blessing to be in that climate as compared to where I am, Texas. The heat is really taking it out of me this year, as I too am moving from one year to the next. I love the quote from John Henry Newman. I can honestly say that I appreciate being able to discover that the “duties” of the day are becoming beautifully normal.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes, I am really feeling for the people of Arizona and Texas…let’s pray this heat breaks SOON. I know, Bonnie, it’s funny to read that JHN passage and to realize…Oh…I kind of do that most days…

  21. Dear Heather,
    This is a “wee bit late” however I do wish you a blessed Birthday Year ahead
    How blessed you are to be in Galway and having time to “be” Thanks for all the sharing and I hope that this time you have for resting in Him is rejuvenating and just what you need as thoughts of sister death and His embrace cross your mind and enter your heart.
    I was going to ask you about something a friend requested of me but I see you are in Ireland for three mos so I doubt it is possible for you to answer her question. I’ll send you an email explaining it.
    In the meantime please remember me to the Lord as this ole friend of yours @ 81 has many of the things crossing her mind and in her heart as you do.
    With love,
    In Him,
    Jeanne

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes, dear Jeanne, please feel free to send me an email re your friend’s request to you and of course I’m glad to try to answer it, or help in any way I can. “Round me falls the night; Savior, be my light”…How grateful I am for your friendship, your example, your prayer…my time in the holler, however short in the grand scheme of things, had a very deep effect on my soul. Have just returned from 6:30 pm Mass and Adoration here in the village of Oughterard. Like you, I am at last right around the corner from a church, at least for now…In Christ’s love to you in Pittsburgh–

  22. colleensoll says: Reply

    Happy birthday! I’ve been in that corner of Ireland before – it’s so lovely!

  23. Happiest of birthdays wonderful Heather! What a blessing you are and I hope Ireland proves to be a wonderful adventure for you (and all the other places you’ll be visiting – London by any chance?!)

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Hello dear Lizzie! No plans for London this time but maybe another year…in the meantime, sending blessings and love!

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS!

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