It is a kind of love, is it not? How the cup holds the tea, How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare, How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes Or toes. How soles of feet know Where they’re supposed to be. I’ve been thinking about the patience Of ordinary things, how clothes Wait respectfully in closets And soap dries quietly in the dish, And towels drink the wet From the skin of the back. And the lovely repetition of stairs. And what is more generous than a window?
~ from Another River: New and Selected Poems (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2005)
As we age, there is loss. That loss is like a presence that follows us relentlessly like a shadow. No avoiding it. No pretending. We are mortal. The people we love are mortal, perhaps imminently so. This is part of the rules of engagement. And while most of us avoid thinking too much about it, poets like Mary Oliver offer life instructions:
To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:
To love what is mortal
To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.
I honestly don’t know which of these three rules is the hardest. Right now, they each seem nearly impossible. But having the courage to follow these instructions feels like the answer.
Her full poem is below.
Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars
of light, are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders
of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is
nameless now. Every year everything I have ever learned
in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side
is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know. To live in this world
you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it
against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Mr. Rogers had a gift for seeing each child he encountered as an individual, a neighbor, someone worthy of respect just as they are. No need to impress him, or to put on an act, or to pretend. He accepted children. Period. No strings attached.
Do you feel you are enough, just as you are? Sometimes our families, friends, or societies give us the message that we aren’t. That we need to be thinner, richer, smarter, younger, more attractive. Something different from what we are. That we must think the same as they do and fall in line. It’s exhausting.
What a gift it is to accept people, including ourselves, just as is. No one is perfect, so why pretend we are? We each have strengths and weaknesses, things we’re working on and things we’ve got sorted. Instead of finding flaws, we can look at ourselves and each other as complicated works in progress, with value just as we are, giving ourselves and each other ‘the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.’
Yesterday, I was minding my business, making a quick salad for lunch. As I peeled the sticker top off the little plastic tub of cherry tomatoes, I was caught by surprise. On the back of the sticker was a picture of a man and a scan code to learn more about him.
It turns out Gabriel Bizarrón helps to make sure my tomatoes are bug free and have the right nutrients, He is working toward a degree in agribusiness. Gabriel is one of the many people responsible for helping me have a delicious healthy lunch, and I’m thankful for him.
Which got me thinking about all the other people in the chain of bringing these tomatoes to my belly, and there are so many. Stopping and imagining all the hands and minds that went into bringing my meals into existence, and being grateful for each of them, was quite a fun exercise. There are so many! What a wonderful invisible web of people there are behind the scenes to bring each of us food, clean water, electricity, and so on. Not to mention being grateful for businesses, like this and like Snapple with their hidden quotes, that take time to make their packaging inspirational. It is staggering once you start thinking about it, and really no end in sight, because each ‘thankful for’ leads to another, infinitely.
Apparently, today is World Penguin Day which reminded me of this delightful story about penguin JinJing and the man who saved his life. Each year, this little penguin swims 5000 miles to be with his friend.
So much is beyond our understanding including heart-warming stories like this about the bonds between a wild animal and a human who showed them kindness.
Look, for example, at the evolution of the color choices in the crayon:
Or in ice cream:
We are definitely not living in a plain vanilla, white bobby socks, only primary color world. We are living in a vibrant, color-and-detail everywhere world. Some days it feels wondrous to just soak it all in and enjoy the variety.
There is a certain alchemy in writing a book. Where do ideas come from? How do they knit together to form a story? What elevates words to resonate with a reader’s inner self? An author may seem like a bit of a magician conjuring elements, or perhaps a conductor taming orchestral components together to make music.
But reading can be even more magical. Words written by a stranger maybe years ago can resonate deeply and touch your soul. Fictional characters can be more real to you than the people you see every day. You can curl up on your couch with a book and be completely transported into another place and time in a way that feels so astonishingly real that when you put down the book, you temporarily lose your bearings. And sometimes you can read something that travels through time and space to speak directly to your troubled heart and give you peace.
W.B. Yeats put it this way:
Where My Books Go
All the words that I gather, And all the words that I write, Must spread out their wings untiring, And never rest in their flight, Till they come where your sad, sad heart is, And sing to you in the night, Beyond where the waters are moving, Storm darkened or starry bright.
Now is our time to be alive. It will not come again. This is our last chance to savor nature and all of its wonder, to spend time with loved ones, to do good, to spread joy. This is it. This is our opportunity.
In the movie, Michael, an angel comes to Earth to influence the course of events. He, apparently, smells of cookies. But there is a scene, after ‘battle’ (he’s that kind of angel), when he is savoring the day. He is soaking it in, just enjoying being corporeal, waltzing with the breeze.
If only we could hold on to that wonder, awe, and appreciation, live in the moment, truly appreciate all we’ve been given here. What a fine world that would be.
People have always told stories. Plopped down on this earth with so much beyond our understanding, we struggle to make sense of things, to find cohesion and purpose, and to fit. We long for meaning outside of our circumstance and kinship beyond our borders.
Stories help. They comfort and guide us, inspire and warn, and make us feel less alone. Others feel the way you feel. And, at the root of story, is a turning away from ourselves toward something greater.
My book GERTIE, THE DARLING DUCK OF WWII, was just released. It tells the non-fiction story of a time during WWII when things were bleak, hopes worn raw, when a little duck built her nest on a high pole above a foul river. A hopeless place, really, for keeping the ducklings alive. Yet, the city of Milwaukee rallied around this little duck and saved her brood. Stories about Gertie’s struggles captured the attention of the entire world, comforted soldiers overseas, and gave everyone a glimpse of a better day. Stories about Gertie shared the front page with stories about Hitler, kamikaze pilots, and concentration camps.
For me, Gertie’s story will always be an embodiment of Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” To me, her story feels like a message of hope in the darkest of times, a prayer and response.
At heart, most stories are a prayer—a way of reaching for something more, a hope, a yearning, a plea. Stories help connect us and give us peeks behind the curtain.