The Tenth Anniversary Of My Return To Earth

It was ten years ago this morning – ten years since I died during a routine medical procedure and was returned to life by science and the Universe – ten years since I experienced drifting in the darkness of space and through a passageway of light — ten years since the experience required me to travel away from one part of my life and forward to the opportunities and challenges of another. We can become, in our minds, refugees of a sort; people thrust away from the safety of the familiar.

It’s been 10 years today and impossible for me not to consider how I’ve used this gift of time – to what advantage, with what learning, and in what state of harmony between my inner-self and the outer-life I live.

When I woke up this morning I had a fleeting temptation to be critical of the use I’ve made of these years, maybe expecting of myself – given the gift of a decade – that I should be scrambling up from sleep on the side of a sacred mountain near Nepal; be playing my fortune forward by waking between shifts as a volunteer at an aid station for people fleeing a war zone, admiring the contours of biceps I could have developed, the outcomes of the social change I might have championed.
But this morning, I didn’t climb out of bed and put my feet on the boards of any of these experiences. Though much shifted about in my thinking as a result of my brief encounter with the over there, I came back to what others must perceive as an ordinary life, a life not outwardly propelled towards any exceptional, world-altering changes.

There are of course the noticeable things we do after significant life events; we change our diets, change our schedules.  We start exercising; retreat to chairs, lower our fat intake; increase the booze. We manage money or let it flow. We cry more easily, laugh more readily.  We share more; we share less.; get a dog – vow that there could never be another.  We move. Redecorate. We openly regret. We say goodbye. We say hello. We put tattoos on our arms; our hands on our ears. We become believers: unbelievers – chanters, kneelers, breathers, feelers.

I don’t know what people would observe about me;  if I seem different or the same. I know, that like others, what I do and what I feel can reside at some distance from each other, a dissonance that arises in our consciousness when a crisis or emergent event occurs – when something happens that puts our inner-selves and our feelings at odds with the outer-lives we try to maintain.

I’ve realized the urgency to bring a balance to this dissonance several times in my life; at points in my careers, for example, when what I  was doing for a living was so greatly at odds with what I  imagined for myself, or when I’ve recognized that the negativity of another person or a situation consistently made me feel in conflict with what I’d like to feel.  And certainly when I arrived home on that first day from the hospital and stood before a mirror and saw not so much the reflection of a scarred and unfamiliar body as I did an expression of puzzled gratitude and inner-resolve.

Gratitude and the resolve to live one’s life more authentically can encounter barriers over a period of ten years. There have been the challenging days and weeks, the losses, the health issues experienced by my family – our friends, the terrible news that arrives from the outside world, the things that threaten to break loose in my aging body when I lift something too heavy at the gym and sometimes merely from a sneeze. Gratitude and this second chance haven’t always facilitated my honesty nor prevented me from becoming impatient or irritated, insensitive, or in a state of disbelief. It hasn’t eased the wince that my ego has felt as doctors have begun to defer my complaints to my age, or eased the pain of seeing men wearing pajama bottoms in the grocery store.

However, in my ordinary life, the experience of a decade ago has impacted my awareness of the unnecessary curtain that can exist between our ordinary, work-a-day lives and the need of our souls for a life of authentically.

I don’t remember most of the books I read to our children and grandchildren when they were young, but I do remember how I liked reading them The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; the gruff voice I used for the Skin Horse, the snobbish scoffing of my nose as I mimicked the Mechanical Toys, and the wild interchanges of the real rabbits that lent themselves to theatrics.
I was drawn to the story’s metaphor of our quest to become authentic despite being worn through and sometimes broken by the mere nature of being human; of how vulnerability can alter us, tear at our seams; how our flaws and imperfections can transform us. How openness and the acceptance of our tattered hearts, our worn and aging bodies, our injured spirits – by others, and especially ourselves, can make us feel honest and real.
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”   The Velveteen Rabbit,  by Margery Williams

What have I learned in these past ten years?

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.”

                                                                                                                                    Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

We get to make choices in our singular days. Added together, whether numerous or scant, the choices we make will be considered the life we have led. We have the opportunity each day, each moment, to express the unseen and unspoken; to love, respect, create, share, stand up for, risk, enjoy, perceive, protect, and to become aware that little of this life is about us – but very much that follows could be because of us.
This has been a difficult blog for me to write.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps because it isn’t easy – this thinking back to a hard time and trying to summarize feelings with words.  I’ve tucked myself away with my laptop this evening – downstairs in a room warmed by a tiny space heater just off our garage.  A bowl of pretzels, three cups of tea, and the dish of chocolate chips have been my companions. I didn’t shower this morning – haven’t shaved for several days.  I’m wearing my favorite pair of ragged wool socks, two hoodies, and sweat pants with streaks of acrylic paint that trace paths where I’ve wiped my hands, and they now boast a new smear from a chocolate chip that tried to escape.


I think I need to cut the guy wearing pajamas at the grocery store a little slack.

                                                                                                                                                                          January 12, 2020, 10:30 p.m. 

Banner photograph by Ryan McGuire / Epilogue photograph by David Mark


3 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    Fred, thank you for sharing your reflection on these ten years. You just capture your thoughts so beautifully in writing.

  2. Fred Swan says:

    Coming to know you Sam has been one of the gifts.

  3. kathy heide says:

    I love your words Uncle Fred. And I love you. Thank you for sharing your gratitude of your gift of time with us. I don’t think you’ve wasted one minute and you’re anything but ordinary. : )