Living the Question: A Letter to Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh darlin,

This letter is more for me than you. I know you will understand. Your history of generously responding to the letters and questions of others is your legacy.

When you were young your parents sent you to military school. It didn’t work for you – you were too fragile, too sensitive. You were a poet. You were bullied. You left. It was a formative but hurtful experience and as you moved on towards a glorious, bohemian life full of sex and poetry and great minds, you did your best to forget it. You turned towards the more interesting existential trials of an artistic life.

When you were in your mid twenties, you received a letter from a young man named Franz Xaver Kappus, a student at the same military academy where you had studied, a poet himself, and full of questions. He wanted your opinion of his work, answers about writing, and thus began one of the most poignant series of letters in literature. Your ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ are beautiful meditations on what is means to write, to create, to be human.


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I am always amazed by the quality of though and the clarity of these letters. You do not sound as young as you were. You sound wise and very human. You sound generous, sincere, and in some ways I wonder if writing these letters to this young guy who was living a version of a path you had been on was somehow healing. Perhaps connecting in this way to this time and place that hurt you awakened that memory and softened it. Perhaps there was a greater purpose to you having endured it.

Because of the level of awareness and mindfulness that some of your letters bring, you are often quoted and have even had a renaissance among the new age mystics. Which is why I was only half surprised when, arriving at a brand new yoga studio in a heavy funk and with a muddled heart, the instructor began the class with a quote from your fourth letter to Kappus:


I was carrying a big question. I will not name it in this letter – my focus here is the challenges of life’s questions, not the nuance of my particular question. I have carried this question for a while now and it will probably be a lifelong companion. It is a question I thought I knew the answer to for many years – it is a common question and I figured that my answer would be as easy to reach as it is for many people. I guess it wasn’t a question for a long time.

And then it was, and it was the biggest one I’ve had to ask myself. On one side of the question was the life I had always imagined, the life I had told everyone I wanted. No surprise then, that many challenged me when I began to hover on the line. They thought they were protecting me. They thought the answer was being forced. They didn’t see as clearly as I did that on the other side of the question was a life I could never have anticipated wanting. It would be rich and full and free and buoyed by love. I chose that other life. It is so good. It is right and true and it has opened me in ways I didn’t expect and it has given me opportunities to live out parts of myself that, if I chose the other life, I would have had to compromise.

My question is unpopular. There is not a lot said about it, and there are only two pieces of advice that have resonated enough to help me in any real way:

The first is from Dear Sugar, an advice column formerly in the Rumpus, written by the the incredible Cheryl Strayed. A man had written in with similar theme to mine, asking how to know which life to choose. In her advice she references the poem “The Blue House” by Tomas Tranströmer which holds the line ‘We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.’  Strayed expands this to the idea that the life we don’t choose is ‘the ghost ship that doesn’t carry us’, a line I love so much, but she says the only way to honour that life is to ‘salute it from shore’. The more I think about it, the more that image of standing on shore, watching another life passing by is unsettling to me. It is more comforting to imagine, instead, two ships: the one I am on, sailing along with the realities and revelations of this life,  and the one that sails beside it, and that is the life I didn’t choose, the choices I didn’t make. And both ships are sturdy and strong and glide alongside each other. Those unmade choices haven’t escaped me. They are merely thriving in another universe.

This idea only gets me so far. It works when I am enlightened and strong. It is not always thus.

The other advice, of course, is yours, this full passage from that fourth letter:


“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, 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.”

Sometimes I live far out in the pastures of the life I chose. I grow things there. I thrive there, with joy and truth and passion.

Sometimes I live a little closer to the line. Sometimes the line blurs. Sometimes it is on fire. Sometimes my question throbs  deeply in me and I want to rip it out entirely. It is an extra organ I do not need. Why is it there? Did I put it there, really, or was it just included in the typical structure of what most people want? Did society force me to make this decision? My parents, bless them, didn’t. My partner didn’t. It is my own thing to live with. Sometimes, very far down the rabbit hole, I doubt myself. I was there that day on the yoga mat, and the instructor read your lines again and I found myself with tears streaming out of my shavasana and I was reminded by you, as I tend to be exactly when you want me to, that I do not need to fight my question. It does not need to be a struggle. It is a conversation, a dance. I need to love the question like it is my child, and live out the truth I have chosen, for as long as it feels true.

If nothing else, the journey is my own.




Dear Sugar also had a podcast! It’s spectacular. Have a listen here or subscribe on itunes:

Find “The Ghost Ship The Didn’t Carry Us” here:

DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #71: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us


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