by Anne Wunderli
I met Emma Lou for the first time at my wedding reception in 1983. She was a long-time friend of my mother-in-law and had come to admire and respect her. I was a bit overwhelmed to see her there and to shake her hand.
Over the years her gift for language, her intelligence, and her authentic voice has comforted and inspired me. Reading her spiritual autobiography, The Place of Knowing, this summer was a particularly powerful experience. In it she recounts her remarkable life, interspersing recollections with some of her wonderful poetry. As I read it I marveled at the things that I didn’t know about her: her love of all women and all religious traditions, her passionate opposition to the nuclear arms race, her courage in the face of those who passionately disagreed with her. I also loved reading that she rigorously protected annual time away from her family to work and to be contemplative. She spoke a little bit more about that in a 2011 blog post:
“My spiritual life withers in too much togetherness, just as it thrives in quiet. Alone I find my link to the vertical, the divine: I meditate and pray and walk and dream and write by the hour anything long. I meet myself and my creator again. But I could never be content without also being connected to the horizontal, my people. Because I know I’ll get to occupy both worlds, I’m content in either, with the heavenly balance of both.”
I’m thankful that she included in her book something so personal as her brush with death following a terrible accident. In a video promoting The Place of Knowing, she said:
“I hope what people will take away with them [from reading the book] is that death is a beautiful thing–it was a lovely experience for me. While it was lovely, I came back with a promise to tell about it. I came back also with a new and thorough reverence for life.”
I love the image I have of Emma Lou transitioning joyfully into that new realm, one that she already briefly experienced and returned from rejoicing. Her lasting gift, I think, is helping us all reverence our own lives in all of their challenges and triumphs.
Rest in peace and happiness, Emma Lou.
Anne is VP for Operations at a human services org serving homeless and formerly homeless individuals in Boston called Pine Street Inn.