Poem for a Sunday Morning

A Small Needful Fact
{Ross Gay}

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.


It’s not enough to say that I am not a racist.

It’s not enough to say that I am uncomfortable talking about racism, that I haven’t tried, that I don’t know how.

It’s not enough to feel sad, disgusted, demoralized and ashamed.

It’s not enough to say that I live “here” and because I live “here” it’s not an issue for me, for us.

It’s not enough to pay attention.

It’s not enough to say that I’ll use my vote.

It’s not enough to visit the monuments, to read the words, to know the history.

It’s not enough to claim the moral high ground.

It’s not enough to say, “give it time, it will change.”

It’s not enough to be a “good guy,” a “good friend,” a “good” colleague, father, husband, citizen.

It’s not enough to share a smile and a wave, to hold the door, to say “thank you,” to say “no problem.”

It’s not enough to not know how.

It’s not enough.

It’s not nearly enough.


person holding white cotton candy

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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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#16 – You’ve Got it Better Than You Think

This is #16 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


I can’t remember when it was and I can’t remember who said it but the idea they expressed has served me well every time I’ve allowed my (mostly) “1st world problems” to get me down.

It goes like this: imagine you are standing in a circle large enough to contain everyone you know. And imagine that everyone standing in that circle is able to toss into the middle of it, for everyone to see, every problem they have.

Take a moment to imagine that.

And then imagine yourself surveying all of it, really seeing it and accepting it for what it is and what it must mean to the person who threw it in there.

Seeing it, the crushing reality of it all, allows us a moment to shake ourselves awake and then, as quickly as we can, grab our own problems back from the pile.

My thought is, let’s skip the circle and the pile and the grabbing back of our own stuff and just go with more empathy.

We’ll have really done something when we can do that.


photo of trash lot on shore

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade 
{Brad Aaron Modlin}

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.


art background batch blackboard

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Dear Darkening Ground
{Rainer Maria Rilke}

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve  endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor-maybe you’ll let their work
grip them another five hours – or seven

before you become forest again, and
widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and ripe and worthy of you.

I want only seven days – seven
on which  no one has ever written himself –
seven pages of solitude.

There will be a book that includes these pages,
and she who takes it in her hands
will sit staring at it for a long time,

until she feels that she is being held
and you are writing.


green grass

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

The Panther
{Rainer Maria Rilke}

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly — .
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

{translation by Stephen Mitchell}


abus brand close up closed

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Posted on the bulletin board above my desk are three poems I intend to memorize. The first among them follows here. Do yourself a favor and read it aloud. Once, at the dinner table with the family, I did exactly that and my young daughter broke into tears. The language is that precise and that beautiful; the invitation to chase after what you love, that intoxicating.


The Song of Wandering Aengus
{William Butler Yeats}

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

How Many Times Have You Died?

“I don’t know exactly what happened to me after that car accident when my blood pressure dropped precipitously low, and in the end, I realized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to solve it or explain it. Maybe I died, maybe I didn’t.

I just don’t know.

What I do know for sure is that I have died many times is this life. As a lost and helpless boy, I died in a magic shop. The young man who was both ashamed and terrified of his father, the one who had struck him and got his blood on his hands, died the day he went off to college. And although I didn’t know it at the time of my accident, eventually the arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon I would become would also suffer his own death. We can die a thousand times in this lifetime, and that is one of the greatest gifts of being alive. That night what died in me was the belief that Ruth’s magic had made me invincible and the belief that I was alone in the world.”

– from Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty.

magic shop

Thank you, Mary Oliver

I am so thankful for the life and work of Mary Oliver and so sad to learn that she died on Thursday. Her poem, “The Journey” is the first thing I posted on this blog twelve years ago. Just yesterday, in an accidental feat of perfect timing, I published it again as the centerpiece of a meditation on becoming a person. The person I am becoming continues to be shaped by Oliver’s work; “The Journey” and so many others. With deepest gratitude for her peaceful and powerful impact on my life, I have republished below a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

flying_canada_geese

Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

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.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

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.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

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.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

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.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced so many deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied stuckness by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do and began.”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.