The Art of Living with the End in Mind
When Marisa, a childhood friend, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Barbara Becker set off on a quest to find the answer to the question: can we live our lives more fully knowing some day we will die? In her poignant debut memoir HEARTWOOD: The Art of Living with the End in Mind, Becker, hospice volunteer, interfaith minister, and human rights activist, tests the ancient wisdom of “living with the end in mind” by allowing death to become her teacher.
Through a spiritual lens, Becker explores different chapters of loss throughout her life, unearthing the love and strength present at the center of each experience. Just as with the heartwood of a tree—the central core that is no longer alive yet supports the newer growth rings—the dead become a source of enduring strength to the living.
Following a tumultuous year of world-wide mourning, HEARTWOOD prevails as a firm but gentle promise that at the center of loss, love can be found. Inspiring readers to live with the end in mind, HEARTWOOD is a love letter to life, viewing grief not as a problem to be solved, but rather a sacred invitation—an opportunity to let go into something even greater, a love that will inform all the days of our lives.
published in Publishers Weekly’s March 1st issue
In the book, you mention a close family member died from Covid-19. Do you have any advice on to honor those in their final moments if you can’t be there physically?
Covid is the perfect test, in a way, of everything I’d been studying with the Zen monks who were teaching me to be with hospice patients. It was really a where-the-rubber-meets-the-road moment. Not just for individuals, but for society. One of the most important lessons I learned in the course of looking at death was to be fully present in the situation as it was—not as we hoped or dreamed it would be. We all have fantasies about the perfect white room with the white curtains, and dying peacefully like that—but sometimes it’s not, and that’s just the hard reality.
Was it hard to write about the more difficult moments in your hospice work?
I knew I wanted to write about what I was experiencing while I was with hospice patients or loved ones as they were dying. But I sort of set a rule for myself as a writer to not be writing in my head. As a writer we have a tendency to do that, to be constantly scanning the room for interesting details. I had to say to myself, “That’s not what this is about, this is about being fully present with this person in this moment.” Something happens when you make this intentional decision to be fully present, which is that afterwards you remember certain things almost as if it’s a perfect camcorder recording.
You write that, in moments where you’ve faced your own mortality, you’ve found “fleeting” peace but know you have more work to do.
It makes sense looking at death that way to me because it’s so unpredictable. We don’t know when or how we will die, if it will be prolonged or happen in an instant. We all have to find the best way for ourselves to deal with the fears and anxieties. For me, that became a connection to meditation and mindfulness during the miscarriages that I had. Looking at the present moment and befriending it—whatever comes. It’s being kind to ourselves. Dropping the judgment of how we’re doing in that moment, and that’s an ongoing practice. I feel like a big message from the book is, can we really take on death awareness? That’s a radical shift in how we live our lives in the West considering how much we push death away. People who are sick or older are often out of sight. We put concrete liners around bodies so worms don’t get at them. We do all kinds of things to avoid the notion that we will die. This is a return to wisdom that accepts death.
Thank you, Barbara Becker and Bruce Mason
About the Author
Barbara Becker is the founder of EqualShot, a strategic communications consultancy specializing in strengthening the voice of the non-profit community. For over twenty-five years, she has served a broad range of institutions including the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh. She has taught on the faculty of Columbia University’s master’s program in strategic
communications and has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Becker holds a Master of Arts in International Administration from the School for International Training, a Master of Arts in Media Studies from the New School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology from Haverford College. An ordained interfaith minister, she lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.