“What does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves … which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone?”
Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the most prolific and poetic letter writers in history, a great master of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art,” with more than seven thousand of his epistles surviving today. In 1929, three years after his untimely death, the best known compendium of them was published — Letters to a Young Poet, the source of Rilke’s memorable meditation on living life’s questions. A year later, his Letters to a Young Woman (public library) was published — a lesser known but no less rewarding collection of his correspondence with a young admirer named Lisa Heise, who reached out to Rilke in 1919 after her husband abandoned her with their two-year-old son and she found sole consolation in Rilke’s Book of Images. They corresponded for five years and although they never met, the letters between them brim with the warm nectar of mutuality that flows between two souls willing to hold each other’s truth with tenderness.
Writing in 1922, Rilke sends Heise a short but infinitely emboldening reflection on what winter teaches us about life’s riches, translated here by William Needham:
Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!
Philosopher Joanna Macy’s soul-gladdening A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke — which also gave us Rilke’s magnificent letters on how befriending death helps us live more fully — includes an excerpt of this letter, translated by Macy herself thusly:
You might notice that in some ways the effects of our winter experiences are similar. You write of a constant sense of fullness, an almost overabundance of inner being, which from the outset counterbalances and compensates all deprivations and losses that might possibly come. In the course of my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!
In his final letter to Heise in February of 1924, by which point she had gotten back on her feet, Rilke echoes this faith in the tenacity of the human spirit and our resilient capacity for joy. Needham’s translation:
Do you not have an increasing sense that underlying one’s own preparedness to accept whatever fate may bring there is a warm, sincere, frightened yet daring unchangeability? And what does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves which we have daringly attempted and which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone? After so much honest progress you have now come thus far: that you can live humbly and with the clear expectation that nothing untrue will, nor indeed can, ever find its way in to your heart, for you have that voice within you which merits your safe trust, your utmost faithfulness, and your joy.