What might have been? I’d guess we’ve all asked that at one time or another. Here’s a fine what-might-have-been poem by Andrea Hollander, who lives in Portland, Oregon.
Long after I married you, I found myself
in his city and heard him call my name.
Each of us amazed, we headed to the café
we used to haunt in our days together.
We sat by a window across the paneled room
from the table that had witnessed hours
of our clipped voices and sharp silences.
Instead of coffee, my old habit in those days,
I ordered hot chocolate, your drink,
dark and dense the way you take it,
without the swirl of frothy cream I like.
He told me of his troubled marriage, his two
difficult daughters, their spiteful mother, how
she’d tricked him and turned into someone
he didn’t really know. I listened and listened,
glad all over again to be rid of him, and sipped
the thick, brown sweetness slowly as I could,
licking my lips, making it last.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
—Nelson Mandela. Speech from the dock. April 1964.
1990: Released from prison, after 27 years, at the age of 71. 1993: Nobel Peace Prize with Frederik Willem de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” 1994: Elected president of South Africa in the first multiracial election.
Nelson Mandela was a man of rare intelligence, strength, integrity, compassion. He was hurt so many times, outrageously and deliberately, and yet he said, "Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace," and by example, angled us all further toward reconciliation.
The birth dates of my mother, my two sisters, and my brother are in a 49-day period beginning on 15 August and ending on 2 October. When I was a child there seemed to be a crowd of late summer and early autumn family birthdays, and a crowd of people in the world who were celebrating birthdays along with them. To my parents’ credit, my 4 January birthday was celebrated with family traditions and enthusiasm the equal of any other family birth date.
As an adult, facing my wintry birth date three days after the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve celebratory period exhausts its final piece of candy and bottle of Champagne makes me feel as if I were floating alone on a wintry birth date ice floe. Until recently, I had never met anyone else with my birth date, which was often the day people trudged back to work after the holidays. When faced with yet another celebration, I often lack the energy or desire to observe the day, and feel with sympathy the effort of those around me to gather their winter-sapped strength for one more event. I’ve thought of moving my birthday out six months, but that date is taken by America. Even my dad’s 9 December birthday, the one that felt paired with mine, seemed more fun to celebrate in its post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas position. All the china and silver were already at hand, and the darkest days following the winter solstice had not yet begun.
The “Which Birth Dates Are Most Common?” infographic by Mike Wiles, included in the book Best American Infographics 2013 edited by Gareth Cook; featured on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog (I’ve ordered a copy so I can lose myself in its varied infographics and its introduction by David Byrne), verifies what I have long maintained, most people are born in autumn, and even my dad’s 9 December birth date is shared with more people than my 4 January date.
My two sisters thoughtfully produced my three nieces and one nephew with birth dates in the 60-day period beginning on 9 March and ending on 7 May. This gives us a new set of celebrations in a row in springtime. I am still waiting for my family winter match. Maybe in the next generation.
I do have one question about Mr. Wiles’ infographic: Why did he choose a neutral-to-funereal range of colors from beige, through a series of greenish taupes, to black to represent varying concentrations of birth dates? Why not pale-yellow to dark-saffron orange, which strikes me as a palette more representative of the creation of life. Representing the highest concentrations of births in black intrigues me. Despite my love of the color, its use here would in my mind more classically suggest an infographic of death dates, which would in itself be an interesting infographic.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats. Michael Robartes and the Dancer. 1921.
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
W. S. Merwin. The Second Four Books of Poems. (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
Happy 30 September Birthday, W, S. Merwin. Wishing you willing to stay in a strange garment, surprised at the earth and telling us about it, for as long as possible.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
—Mary Oliver. Dream Work. (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.)
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?
—Mary Oliver. West Winds: Poems and Prose Poems. (Mariner Books. 1998.)
Pale lemon liquid light. High blue skies. Changing leaves clinging to trees for one more day. Dry leaves in rustling piles on the ground. Smoky air. Crisp nights. Harvest moon. Hunter’s Moon. Glittering star chips. Sweaters. Coats. Gloves.
All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
—Adam Zagajewski (Translated by Renata Gorczynski.)
h/t Bumble Ward
"How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?"
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Stanley Kunitz. The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002)
I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,
I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.
Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.
Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,
and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.
Joyce Sutphen. After Words. (Red Dragonfly Press, 2013.)
"to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly."
George Saunders gave the Syracuse University 2013 convocation speech. He talked about kindness. Here is what he said:
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….
And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.
I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
—Ellen Bass. The Human Line. (Copper Canyon Press, 2007.)
“…and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
—James Joyce. Ulysses. (The end of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.)
Like a stunned piano, like a bucket
of fresh milk flung into the air
or a dozen fists of confetti
thrown hard at a bride
stepping down from the altar,
the stars surprise the sky.
Think of dazed stones
floating overhead, or an ocean
of starfish hung up to dry. Yes,
like a conductor’s expectant arm
about to lift toward the chorus,
or a juggler’s plates defying gravity,
or a hundred fastballs fired at once
and freezing in midair, the stars
startle the sky over the city.
And that’s why drunks leaning up
against abandoned buildings, women
hurrying home on deserted side streets,
policemen turning blind corners, and
even thieves stepping from alleys
all stare up at once. Why else do
sleepwalkers move toward the windows,
or old men drag flimsy lawn chairs
onto fire escapes, or hardened criminals
press sad foreheads to steel bars?
Because the night is alive with lamps!
That’s why in dark houses all over the city
dreams stir in the pillows, a million
plumes of breath rise into the sky.
“Cities, she believed, should be untidy, complex and full of surprises. Good cities encourage social interaction at the street level. They are pedestrian friendly. They favor walking, biking and public transit over cars. They get people talking to each other. Residential buildings should be low-rise and should have stoops and porches. Sidewalks and parks should have benches. Streets should be short and wind around neighborhoods. Livable neighborhoods require mixed-use buildings – especially first-floor retail and housing above. She saw how “eyes on the street” could make neighborhoods safe as well as supportive, prefiguring an idea that later got the name “social capital.” She favored corner stores over big chains. She liked newsstands and pocket parks where people can meet casually. Cities, she believed, should foster a mosaic of architectural styles and heights. And they should allow people from different income, ethnic, and racial groups to live in close proximity.”
Probably because I am considering where I want to live and why, and have been making occasional forays into neighborhoods that are surprising me, I have been thinking about the remarkable Jane Jacobs and her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Until recently I lived in a building in San Francisco that was attractive inside and out but had no relationship to the street. It was beautiful-fortress living and, while I appreciated its gorgeous view, it was not my kind of place. Now I’m staying with a friend in a suburban neighborhood lush with trees, walking paths, birds, fountains, but there are no stoops or front porches, and no corner stores. It’s a car city with malls. And again, as with my city home, the suburban front yards are decorative and empty, the houses’ activities are protected, the garage doors slide open electronically, the cars glide in, the people disappear inside; the activities occur in the interior rooms and in the backyards. People do know each other; there are favors done, conversations conducted, dogs petted, but it’s restrained, orderly, formal.
Wherever I land next, I’d like public transport, front porches, corner stores, and people connecting in Third Places. I want “untidy, complex, full of surprises.” I want “people from different income, ethnic, and racial groups to live in close proximity.” This is not easy to find in our increasingly rich or poor country, but I retain hope that we will work for it because we find we need it.
Usually, I am a daily participant in National Poetry Month. But this year since March I have had my first case of pneumonia, which is hanging on despite my efforts to be well. I have been inside. But, looking out my window I can see it is beautiful in Northern California. Yesterday, I sat in the backyard of the house where I am staying, listening to the fountain, soaking up the sun, tilting my head back to see the rooftops and the trees—each tree busily leafing out in its independent way—cut out against the cloudless, surprisingly deep blue sky. I am trying to calm my racing mind. I have so much to do which is being postponed.
When I thought about what poems to carry in my pocket today, I thought of the intense inner and outer journey I have been on for a number of years, and which, once I am well, I will bring to a place where I am in control of my own journey after a long period of having someone—someone neither powerful nor ethical—having too much power over my life. My journey reminds me of the film Now Voyager, which reminds me of the Walt Whitman poem, “The Untold Want,” from which the title of the film is taken. This year, I am working to overcome old fears. My attempt to overcome old fears is an irony in my life since I am seen as a strong person. And, of course, in the contradictory and complex way of life, I am both fearful and strong. As Walt Whitman says in his poem “Song of Myself,” “Do you say I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” In Now Voyager Bette Davis’ character at one point says to herself, in wonder, after years of living a fearful, enclosed life, “I am not afraid.” Because of that, Whitman’s short poem represents for me a voyage away from, and beyond, fear.
The Untold Want Walt Whitman
The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted, Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.
To accompany Whitman’s poem is a James Wright poem. Wright’s breathtaking poem, “Two Hangovers,” is one of my favorite poems. It has great meaning for me about hope and trust, and contains the beautiful words, “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself / To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do / That the branch will not break.” But, while I am not quite ready for entire delight, I am ready to realize new things about acceptance and letting go of fear.
So the James Wright poem “The Secret of Light” is the other poem in my pocket, and in my heart, today. In this poem, I am a number of things all at once, but most specifically I am three things. One, the river Adige after the rain: “The river has recovered from this morning’s rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.” Two, the end of fear: “I am startled to discover that I am not afraid.” Three, the acceptance of being in the present in my life, with the past already past, and my future not yet here: “It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige. / By this time, we are both an open secret.”
The Secret Of Light James Wright
I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige.
The river has recovered from this morning’s rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.
Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.
While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man’s secret face to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman’s black hair. I trust her to go on living. I believe in her black hair, her diamond that is still asleep. I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.
The very emptiness of the park bench in front of mine is what makes me happy. Somewhere else in Verona at just this moment, a woman is sitting or walking or standing still upright. Surely two careful and accurate hands, total strangers to me, measure the invisible idea of the secret vein in her hair. They are waiting patiently until they know what they alone can ever know: that time when her life will pause in mid-flight for a split second. The hands will touch her black hair very gently. A wind off the river Adige will flutter past her. She will turn around, smile a welcome, and place a flawless and fully formed Italian daybreak into the hands.
I don’t have any idea what his face will look like. The light still hidden inside his body is no business of mine. I am happy enough to sit in this park alone now. I turn my own face toward the river Adige. A little wind flutters off the water and brushes past me and returns.
It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige.