Poem for a Sunday Morning

February 16

                                              An early morning fog.

In fair weather, the shy past keeps its distance.
Old loves, old regrets, old humiliations
look on from afar. They stand back under the trees.
No one would think to look for them there.

But in fog they come closer. You can feel them
there by the road as you slowly walk past.
Still as fence posts they wait, dark and reproachful,
each stepping forward in turn.

{by Ted Kooser, from “Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison”}


I’m the first person up in my house. I have ample time to sit undisturbed in the quiet of the early morning to read, to write and to make plans for the day ahead.

This time of year, I pour a cup of coffee and take it outside where I can feel the cool air and hear the endless chitter of birds as they construct their small regretless lives in the surrounding trees.

I have no problem with regret. I like that, sometimes, I allow myself to remember my smaller, more vulnerable self. I shudder with the memory of being embarrassed in that particular way, in front of those particular people when I had so longed for their approval.

I ache a little in the heart when I think of how I turned my back on someone in pain or worse, when I caused that pain for no better reason than the very best I could do in that moment was not nearly good enough.

I laugh…a small, incredulous laugh when I remember how naive, how self-righteous, how self-important, how certain, only to discover that I was cleverly defended against the truth of my ignorance.

But I don’t stay there – I do not brood – not even for the length of a cup of a coffee. A sip maybe, that is all. Just a moment in that old place, those old feelings of not enough.

And then the morning lengthens, and the coffee is gone. And, like the birds, I get back to  constructing – to living – my life.

I wonder if the birds know that they are free.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

The Facts of Life

That you were born
and you will die.

That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.

That you will lie
if only to yourself.

That you will get tired.

That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.

That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.

That you will live
that you must be loved.

That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of
your attention.

That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.

That life isn’t fair.
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.

That life is often not so good.

That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
with love
and art
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.

That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.

That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constraining.

That you will probably be okay.

That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.

So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.

From “Sorry For Your Troubles” by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013).


I chose this poem on Mother’s Day because, if I’m honest, with all that I have seen and experienced right up close to the action with my nose pressed against the glass, is that I still have no idea what it means to be a mother.

I only know what I’ve witnessed for 50 years as a son and 25 years as a husband. And that is that motherhood, at its very best, is a marathon of ambivalence. It is a forward march of sky-high expectations, too little recognition, the deepest possible feelings of embodied love and the desperate desire to simply be left alone.

The only reasonable synonym for “mother” is “fighter.” The get knocked down repeatedly and never refuse to quit kind, except in this fight there is no bell to mark the rounds and no time to sit and catch your breath.

Motherhood is resilience, through and through, at least that’s what I’ve seen. It is surviving with a smile, resentments and longings set aside, giving while finding, giving while discovering, giving while making, giving, giving, giving.

How, how do they make it look so easy?

Why, why do they love us so much?


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

blessing the boats
{Lucille Clifton}

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that


It’s been a hard week.

Everyone I spoke to said the same thing, this week was tough.

Nerves frayed, emotions running high, sluggish, out of sorts and the continuing weight of uncertainty.

Maybe it has to do with the turn of the calendar, the stark reality of April becoming May a reminder that an entire month – over 6 weeks in total now – has been “lost” to this experience.

And maybe it’s this new thing we know as “Zoom fatigue.” So many people, including myself, have described these virtual interactions as more intimate and purposeful and because of that, more taxing also.

But there were highlights, too. Beautiful and revelatory conversations, generous invitations for future points of connection, hard-won insights born of mistakes. And ideas, fresh ideas only noticed because of the stopping.

I choose not to have another “tough” week but to just have a week. I choose to have a week in which I allow all of it to mix together, concentrated though it may feel, into something teachable and generative.

Because the “tide…is entering even now” and once I have sailed “through this to that” how will I account for the journey?


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Questions Before Dark
{Jeanne Lohmann}

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun’s midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?



These are the days of not knowing what day it is.  

Some of them feel independent and clear, wholly delineated from the others. (It is not “Day 4,” it is Thursday, an actual day in the life.) On these days, I have had a clear thought, followed an idea, engaged in a way that stimulated learning and connection.

Some of them feel smudged and smooshed, the blurred remains of a bug on the windshield. On these days, I have read the news…all of it. I have thought the dark thoughts, felt the dark feelings, watched myself drift – not float, but drift, right into the oncoming car of my lower self.

It’s a big hurried rush of not knowing, all of this. 

What am I to make of this perpetual liminal space?

Answer: I get to choose every day, be it smudged or clear, how to respond to this reality. 

I get to do that. 

Today, and tomorrow. 


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

At Nightfall
{Ted Kooser}

In feathers the color of dusk, a swallow,
up under the shadowy eaves of the barn,
weaves now, with skillful beak and chitter,
one bright white feather into her nest
to guide her flight home in the darkness.
It has taken a hundred thousand years
for a bird to learn this one trick with a feather,
a simple thing. And the world is alive
with such innocent progress. But to what
safe place shall any of us return
in the last smoky nightfall,
when we in our madness have put the torch
to the hope in every nest and feather?

from One World At a Time


We’re home now. All of us are home. We don’t need the white feather because we know exactly where we are.

But when we no longer have to be home, not in this way, not quite so much, what will we remember?

What will normal induce us to forget?

What white feathers must we memorize now, before time and distance do their merciless work?

What simple truths must we never allow to fall away, the loss of which will put us back to sleep?

What will “home” mean when, once again, we have to find our way back?

Poem for a Sunday Morning

Pocket Poem
{Ted Kooser)

If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I’d opened it a thousand times
to see if what I’d written here was right,
it’s all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.


A week ago, for my birthday, my wife recited this poem to me from memory.

It took my breath away. She took my breath away.

The gift of her time, her patient efforts to put it to mind. A gesture of such vulnerability, there in our kitchen, standing there, in front of a hot stove, reciting these aching, haunting words of love.

The poem is ripe with aloneness and longing. It is also tender and hopeful.

The narrator – just like each of us – wants so badly “to be so close” to the one they love. They want to be sure of that love – that they have expressed it just the right way – in the space of their disconnection and uncertainty.

And I cannot help but read in those last lines…”it is warm from me”…an arrival, a coming together, even though the poet does not give us that connection explicitly, he intimates it as though it is real.

He gives us solid ground on which to stand at just the moment when we feel there is none.

I like this poem for now. I like it for Easter. I like it for Covid-19. I like it for the universality of our experience of the unknown. For our losses, whatever form they take in each of our lives, and for our collective, if hesitant, recognition that we can control only one thing: how we choose to embrace the gift of this moment and the possibility of what’s to come.


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Truth and Consolation

Everything in the first list is true.

Everything in the second list is also true.

TRUTH

  1. Life is hard.*
  2. You are not important.
  3. Your life is not about you.
  4. You are not in control.
  5. You are going to die

CONSOLATION

  1. Yes, it’s hard. It’s also joyful and magnificent. Which do you choose to focus on?
  2. Except to those who love and rely on you. Except to those whom you serve.
  3. Until you humbly discover who you really are.
  4. You never were. The sooner you let go, the sooner you will be free.
  5. When you accept this, you can stop being a hero and start being a human.

*this list (and the strong influence to write this post) comes from Adam’s Return (Crossroad Publishing, 2004) by Richard Rohr.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

from “Vacillation”
{W.B. Yeats}

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


On Monday, I will celebrate my 50th birthday. Months ago, well before the advent and repercussions of Covid-19, I decided that there were two ways I wanted to mark the occasion. The first, a long and challenging hike and the second, the recitation of this brief poem for a gathering of close friends and family.

The long and challenging hike is for the expression of my physical well-being, to feel and rightly use the body that has faithfully brought me this far and, with good care, will keep me moving and reaching for years to come. I enter my sixth decade with a deep commitment to being outside, to the exploration of trails and mountains and forests and valleys. I am drawn to these places because of their elemental beauty, of course, but even more so because of their gifts of perspective and humility, something I seem increasingly open to receiving!

The recitation of this poem is an opening through which to express my emotional well-being, that reservoir of love and service that has been poured out in my favor by the people who have refused to allow my failings to interrupt the flow. I know what the poet felt because I feel it too; the blaze of gratitude, the shock of unearned grace, the deep happiness of being wholly loved.

I also hear the call to action (“…and could bless”) as an affirmation of the responsibility of a mature person to be of service. While my personal planting will continue – learning, growing, expanding and connecting – it is companioned I now see by an even more robust season of harvest and distribution. Learning becomes teaching. Growing becomes the provision of shade. Expansion becomes an invitation to share abundance. Connection becomes the catalyst for capacity, because there is no such thing as a finite amount of love.

With rain in the forecast the next few days, I took advantage of the favorable spring weather and enjoyed that long, challenging hike first thing this morning. Once at the top of Mt. Woodson, across a broad, flat boulder, I went ahead and recited the poem, too (video below).

It’s important to share it now, knowing it will be some time before that gathering of family and friends, but in a broader sense, too. It’s important to share it now because in this threshold moment we are all experiencing, if only for “twenty minutes more or less” we are compelled to remember whom we are to one another and to amplify it accordingly.


Beware the False Dichotomy

I read an article today that talked about the leadership challenge of navigating the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” leadership.

It’s not a valid question because it’s based on a false dichotomy.

The distinction between “wartime” and “peacetime” suggests a dualistic, either/or approach to leadership. The discussion centered on working with the intersection of these divergent approaches – “What do I do when both are required? – but that only confirms the dualism of “two” approaches and that under “normal” circumstances you would practice one or the other which is, to put it mildly, hogwash.

Allow me to suggest that we think about this another way:

A leader’s impact, regardless of stability or crisis, is directly proportional to his or her dedication to the truth that leadership exists for the betterment of the human experience. Leadership is the moral responsibility to help other human beings work together to create extraordinary outcomes in the face of change.

When a leader is committed to this definition, dualism must go out the window. There is not “wartime” or “peacetime” leadership. There is, rather, human being leadership that always requires a few fundamental things: the preservation of dignity and respect; the vulnerability to have one real conversation after another; treating employees like adults; investing in their well-being as well as their achievement; clear goals and the resources to achieve them; the eradication of fear and the elevation of love.

With human being leadership, outside conditions are irrelevant. You’ve heard the wedding vow, “In good times and in bad.” Should I love my wife differently in the good times than I do in the bad times? Of course not. Leading a team is no different.

Lead them now, love them now, exactly how you would lead and love them at any other time. If you have to make a radical shift in your leadership practice because the wind has suddenly changed direction, you are doing it wrong.


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‘Essential’ is a Choice

Most of us don’t meet the government’s definition of “essential” when it comes to working the front lines of the response to the novel corona virus.

Most of us, that is, are deemed “non-essential.”

And we who are “non-essential” have been given a very short and manageable to-do list: wash your hands, stay at home and/or stay six feet apart.

But none of the “non-essentials” I’ve talked to feel like that’s “enough.” Most of them want to and are doing more.

You’re seeing it everywhere: acts of service, compassion, creativity, problem-solving, and helping hands. Educators, musicians, civil servants, service workers, neighbors, kids, from all walks of life, giving of themselves in innumerable ways and with epic levels of generosity.

These acts and these efforts, in all of their forms, are essential because they lift us up, give us hope, and remind us in tangible ways that we are all connected.

When we get through the worst of this crisis, it will be because the first wave of essential workers fought heroic battles to stem the tide of a terrible virus. It will also be because a second wave of people, those who chose to be essential, contributed their best selves to the effort, reminding all of us just how remarkable and just how powerful it is to be human.

This is the time to be essential.

Being essential is a choice.

Please do what you can.


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