Living in the Layers

March 29, 2009
Stuart Twite

First Parish, Scituate, MA

Each summer when I was a boy, our family would get in the car, camper behind, and go on vacation. One year, on our way to Disneyland, we stopped at the Grand Canyon. Partly to keep three small children from leaning over the edge of the canyon, and partly because of his particular sense of humor, my father told us that if we fell into the canyon it would take at least one week before we hit the bottom. 

Well this idea instantly became lodged in my mind. In fact I became fairly obsessed with it and I spent the rest of that vacation wondering what I would do or think about for a week while plummeting to the floor of the Grand Canyon. And it didn't stop with the vacation. I have returned and continue to return to this idea for over 35 years. I would like to report that even as a child I was thinking thoughts of great spiritual depth but mostly I wondered how scared I would be, and how sad everyone would be as I dropped and dropped, and what I would look like at the bottom after falling for a week. I am sure that I probably thought as well of elaborate rescue plans that people would surly come up with to save me. 

As I got older, my ideas of the big fall took on much the flavor of my life as I was currently living it. I would think of great regrets, of things that could have been, or great joys and, always, fear and the hope of some kind of external salvation. 

Eventually, the very strata, or layers of the Grand Canyon would become central to my thoughts. Each layer, symbolical of things held on to far too long, the detritus that make up our lives. Many layers for the good old days- things were really good when- Another set of layers for the bad times, the times of fear, loss and insecurity.  And, always the hope for salvation, a hope for some abiding thing that would make sense of the fall.

Living in these layers is the central idea of Stanley Kunitz's poem of the same name. Written in the 1970's when Kunitz was himself around 70 years old and had lost several members of his family and many dear friends,  "it was" he would later say, "a time when I felt I was ready for a change. I was ready to gather my strengths again and move in a new direction. And this poem came out of that, and I feel is central to my own work and my own life".  It has become so for me as well.

I was honored some years ago to hear Stanley Kunitz give a reading at Storm King Mountain in New York.  Then in his 90's, he read poems from several decades of his amazingly durable career finishing with "The Layers".

The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

"Live in the layers,

not on the litter."


Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.


In an interview for the Paris Review he would say:

"I never tire of birdsong and sky and weather. I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world."

As he read that day, it was clear that we were watching an extraordinary moment- a life lived in that transparency, life and art as one.  It is a life that is available to all.  Live in the layers.  Have a good fall.  Blessings