I have this poem on an old creased piece of notepaper, written out for me in my friend Mike’s very distinctive handwriting. It’s one of my most precious possessions. He sent it to me when we were new friends, long before I was heartbroken or frustrated or jaded. Long before I had known abiding love, great accomplishment, quiet peace. I come back to it every so often for a reminder of his kind gift and our long friendship. I love him because he reminds me to be gentle with myself and to strive to be happy.
Today, I had a conversation with a friend that reminded me of the Taoist parable of the Empty Boat. It is a teaching story attributed to Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher who lived 2500 years ago. Here’s how I tell his story:
Imagine that you are in your fragile boat, rowing across the river at dusk. Out of the gray darkness, you spot another boat heading straight for you. You call to it, announcing your presence. There is no response. You watch helplessly as the boat floats ever closer to you, on a collision course. You shout. You wave your arms. Your panic rises along with your rage. You shake your fist at the boat but it comes right at you. The boat collides with your skiff broadside. Your boat is shattered and you spill into the water.
Now, imagine that there is a person in that boat. How do you feel? What do you do? You focus all that energy and rage on the one who has done you harm. You have been wronged!
Then clear your mind. Imagine the same scene–you on the river at dusk. Imagine that other boat rushing towards you, but it’s empty. The empty boat. There is no one who has wronged you. There is no one who ignored your plea. Even as you tip into the shadowy water, there is no one to shake your fist at.
It’s just something that happened.
“It is what it is.”
Many a time I have found myself dumped into the river by that empty boat. Oh, when I got soaked by Fartbuster…I shook my fist plenty. I shouted and cursed. I waved my arms. I wanted to blow up his boat with him in it to take my revenge. I considered swearing off boats altogether.
Eventually, I quit focusing all my energy on the REASON I was in the river and just started swimming to the other side. I let it go. I remember confessing to my therapist that I didn’t want to give up on him after ten years together because I just KNEW he was about to turn the corner and become the wonderful person that he couldamightashoulda been to me all along. She said, “No, this is as good as he gets. He’s doing his best.” She wasn’t running him down–she was encouraging me to live in reality instead of in the world that might be waiting around the corner. She was right–he was doing his best and I deserved better.
Sometimes you have to throw a fish back in the river so it can grow some more.
Sometimes you have to swim for your life even when you politely have said, “No, thanks, I’ll stay up here on the bank because I don’t want to get my shoes wet.”
Sometimes you have to quit trying to figure out who is rocking the boat. Let it go.
It’s 2:22 a.m. on Thursday morning. I fell asleep at 9 p.m. and woke at midnight. Since then, I’ve been reading “The Golem and the Jinni” and trying to fall back to sleep. But there’s too much weirdness in the air–our routines are off because of the ice storm. I think my brain has tried to do so much prepping and planning for a crisis that hasn’t happened that I can’t turn it off now. So let’s roll with it.
If I’m up at 2:22 a.m., might as well see that phase of the day that I usually miss. I tried to get Huck to go out in the front yard with me, but he knows he’s not supposed to be out there without a leash. I stood in the shelter of the garage while he waited nervously by the kitchen door. The city is a pink glow behind the pines at this hour.
We went to the deck and he hurtled down the stairs and into the bright night. It’s strange to hear the crunch of his steps. I’ll try to remember that. Smoke drifts from my new neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been over to say hello yet, but I enjoy the smell of his wood fires. Oops–there’s Vivi’s jacket that I hung out here to dry the other day–frozen solid. I prop it against the wall for her to see in the morning. The bird feeders need filling again. I wonder where all those birds sleep.
It’s so quiet that I can hear the river. It truly does whisper.
One snowflake drifts down onto my cheek and I’m sure it’s a hello.
Huck is watching me from his crate, a white dog on a white cushion in a white world. Nose as black as a polar bear’s and a pair of sleepy eyes. But he’ll stay up with me if I need him.
But maybe it’s time to sleep. Maybe some writing was what I needed to turn off my brain. To find rest.
Good night. Good morning. Good day.
I’ve been thinking about babies for the last few days, specifically two growing boys named Carlos and Justice.
December 26th is “Carlosmas” because my son was born on a snowy, quiet morning the day after Christmas, three quick years ago.
When G and I went to the hospital at 7 p.m. on Christmas night, the snow had just begun to fall. Vivi was beside herself with excitement–a visit from Santa, Grandma in charge, snow, AND a baby brother! My whole body quivered with nervous energy, too. When we got to the maternity unit, my friend, Paulette, was going off shift but decided to stay to get me settled. That one act of kindness set my mind at ease. It was all going to be OK.
For Vivi’s arrival, there had been a host of people in and out all day–I got giving birth somewhat confused with a tea party. In the end, it was perfect and just the right entrance for Vivi, who has always been vivacious and loves the fuss and bother of a party. For Carlos’ arrival, it was just G and me, whiling away the quiet hours of the night. We walked the empty halls. We watched a black and white movie. We watched the snow gather on the big dogwood tree outside my window. We slept until 6 a.m. and I woke knowing that it was going to be SOON.
But there was no chaos. My friend, Alecia, four months pregnant herself and married to my cousin’s cousin, ended up being our delivery nurse. She called my doctor, who lives just a block away so he walked in through the snow. G and I had done this before, so we were more excited than nervous. The room filled with joyful people as the snow fell outside.
Carlos arrived at 6:27 a.m., along with a lavender glow of sunrise on the snow. I remember looking out the window and feeling such peace. My son is a quiet, joyful child–the chillest little person you’d ever want to meet. Looking back now that I know him better, his birth morning suited him perfectly.
While I watched the purple snow take on the light of morning, with my son now in the world with me, I thought about Christmas and the miracle that Christians believe happened with the birth of one child. My heart told me in that moment that EVERY baby is a miracle. Every baby is another chance to get it right, to be our best selves, to live love. Thoreau put it best: “Every child begins the world again.”
Last year, in the snowy winter, a little boy was born many weeks early. He began his life too small and all alone and struggling. He embodied a chance to live love to anyone who could take him. And that’s exactly what he got. A man I knew a long time ago, David, and his husband, Mark, adopted this tiny baby and gave him a name and a family. They loved him until he was strong enough to leave the hospital. They did the work to make him part of their family. They met his every need and then some. Justice has flourished in his family. I saw a picture of him and his big sister the other day and that baby has the kind of cheeks that make you believe that everything is going to be OK. In a year, his expression has blossomed into smiles. He lives in love and it shows.
I guess what I was thinking about on the morning of Carlos’ birth was something like this: we spend so much effort and energy thinking about another world when there are miracles born every day in this one. Every baby is a gift with the potential to save us from our worst selves. Every baby is a chance to get it right. Every baby brings peace and a chance to live love.
Here’s a poem that seems to fit with this week. Another jewel from Mary Oliver. Please treat yourself to some of her books. I have “Thirst” on my night stand right now and I read a poem a day, like savoring a dark chocolate.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Today I spent the whole day dragged down and wrapped up in words likegovernance guidelines script apology inconvenience infection deadline remorse exit notify meh necessary error message
My day was shaping up into a depressive haiku.
About 5:15, I gave up (or as I call it “threw my f*ck it flag) and left the office. Walking back to my car, I passed a patch of tea olives and the scent tapped me on the shoulder. “Pardon me? Miss? The world is lovely and it’s right here.”
A new word popped into my head: waft.
I smiled…just a little. The tense muscles around my face rearranged themselves gladly. More words: smirk, moue, whimsy.
The sun pattering down through the oak canopy warmed my cheeks and I thought of another word: dappled.
A sleek squirrel scampered across the pebbled path. We locked eyes–gazed–for a fleeting moment, then he was off.
I stopped there on the path and filled my mind with better words…aroma dawdle meander respite breeze soar lilt lark arc swoop horizon rooted heady
Then I continued on my way. Rejuvenated. Replenished. Refreshed. Hopeful. Satisfied.
What’s the most beautiful word you know? The most peaceful? The word that makes you stand still? The one that gets you going?
Have you ever had that moment when a squirrel darts out into the street as you’re driving by but it’s not safe to swerve so you keep going and cringe and wait for the thump…but it never comes? That happened this morning as Carlos and I were driving to school (well, I was driving because his license has been suspended for being a TODDLER). The squirrel ran straight for my tire. I cringed. Then I peeped in the rear view mirror and didn’t see anything splattered behind me, so I figured the squirrel performed some kind of magic and ran between the tires.
Thinking about that squirrel, and a friend who lost her husband this week, and that time I lost my husband–it all made me think about how we dart between the tires all day long. There is so much risk in being alive, so many wheels flying past us as we’re just trying to get a few acorns back to the nest. We can’t stay in the nest with our babies or they and we would starve. We have to go hunting for acorns when the fall makes them plentiful. It’s risky, but it’s why we survive.
Perhaps I should switch to decaf because I really do a LOT of thinking before the sun is high in the sky.
Once we got to school, I opened the car door to lift Carlos out of his seat. His face lit up like we hadn’t seen each other in days. He squealed, “MOMMY!” and flung himself into my arms. I stood there between the minivans with my face buried in the dark curls under his ear and told him how I loved him more than anything else in the world. How I would do anything to keep him safe and happy and growing. He whispered, “Gotcha, baby,” and squeezed me between his tiny arms. That’s what I usually say every morning when I pick him up from his car seat. When he’s upset or startled or crying, I hold him tight and say, “Mommy’s got you. Mommy’s got you. You’re OK.” I guess he could feel that I needed that this morning.
It’s all just so much some days. Like walking across a tightrope and you can’t resist looking down.
On my walk into my office, I did look down. And there lay a soft gray feather on the sidewalk. I love feathers. The hollow shaft that makes it strong and light–the only reason a bird can fly with all that architecture and not be weighed down. The fluffy tuft of down for warmth because it’s cold when you get far away from the earth. The gentle curve, like the curve of the horizon where the earth ends and the sky begins.
It takes thousands of miraculous feathers to make an ordinary sparrow. Just like us, that tiny bird is a hodgepodge of miracles that all seem to work most of the time. Soft and warm, hollow and light, brave and gentle.
But here’s the lesson I got from that feather on the sidewalk: it was just one feather, one feather of a thousand that make up that bird. Loss is real and loss affects us. Loss may even slow us down or ground us for a while. But it’s just one feather. That bird flew on without it.
The squirrel made it back to the nest. Carlos made it to the story rug. Mommy made it to her desk. The sparrow continued to soar.
Peace to you today if you are feeling afraid. You can still fly, even as you lose feathers along the way.