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

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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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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#50 – Forgiveness

The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God
{Allison Funk)

the straps of his sandals broken,
his robe stained with wine,

it was not as easy to forgive.

By then his father
was long gone himself,

leaving me with my other son, the sullen one
whose anger is the instrument he tunes
from good morning on.

I know.

There’s no room for a man
in the womb.

But when I saw my youngest coming from far off,
so small he seemed, a kid
unsteady on its legs.

She-goat
what will you do? I thought,
remembering when he learned to walk.

Shape shifter! It’s like looking through water—
the heat bends, it blurs everything: brush, precipice.

A shambles between us.


I am so grateful that #50 landed on a Sunday morning. I am so grateful to close this chapter of my writing with another poem, poetry having become such a profound consolation to me these last many years. I am so grateful to have fallen into the grace of this poem, one that encouraged and allowed me to conclude these “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For” with “forgiveness.”

Could there be an act both more vulnerable and more generous than that of forgiveness? Could there be a time – not in my lifetime – when forgiveness is both more necessary and more challenging? Could there be – might there be – a swelling of vulnerability and compassion that leads to more forgiveness as a result of this extraordinary, frightening time?

We are all connected which means that we, by the very definition of connection, are vulnerable to one another. We go to great lengths pretending that we are not but that is just not so. 

We will continue to trample on one another’s vulnerability, that is the human way. Which means we must continue to rely on forgiveness to restore ourselves into the loving embrace of those on whom we so rightly depend. 

We can begin by forgiving ourselves for whatever ways we feel we have failed, for whatever ways we feel ashamed, for whatever ways we have hurt another. In doing so, we can wrestle with the hard, hard truth that as we travel that inner journey of self-forgiveness we are building the capacity to forgive others and to help them return it. 

Forgiveness is imperfect, always incomplete and always ongoing. It is also the greatest gift we can give or receive.

Please forgive. That is all I ask of you.



To hear the brief and beautiful meditation on this poem that inspired me to share it with you, please visit Poetry Unbound.

 


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#43 – Compassion

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/pandemic/


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#37 – Eat What You Want (It’s your birthday)

Years ago when I was downplaying another birthday as “just another day” and “not a big deal,” a friend suggested otherwise. She said that the day of our birth is inherently important because it is the day we started being us. It matters that we are here and because that wasn’t always so – and will not always be so – it matters when we started!

I haven’t thought about birthdays the same since and I won’t start now because my wife, Theresa’s birthday is today. If she hadn’t shown up on March 9, 1971 the cascade of life events and changes and chance that led us to one another and the life that we have built together as a result, would never have happened.

And for that I know that I am a very lucky guy.

And you’re lucky, too, even if you don’t know her, because the good that she does in small and meaningful ways every day is the kind of good that goes out into the world with quiet potency.

She’ll give you anything you need and help you in any way she can, no questions asked. She gets stuff done. She is loyal. And, no pushover, she is fierce.

On Sunday afternoon she was making crêpes at the stove. She makes the batter from scratch and then, one at a time, turns out a soft, golden brown, perfectly cooked crêpe.

I said, “Why are you making crêpes?”

“Because I want to,” she said. “And I’ll probably eat them on my birthday.”

C’est ma fille!


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#29 – Little Things Are Big Things

Mossbawn: Sunlight
{Seamus Heaney}

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.


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#15 – You are the one you’ve been waiting for

#15 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.


Love After Love
{Derek Walcott}

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 


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Welcome

To welcome something is to say “yes” to it. It is to encourage its existence and to join with it in a positive spirit of participation.

I choose this word as a companion to accompany me during these final celebratory and transitional weeks of this year. I think of it as a guidepost to which I can turn when preparing final grades, or decorating the house, or assisting in the wide variety of chores that will present themselves in the coming days.

I welcome the opportunity to read my student’s papers so that I can thoughtfully evaluate their work.

I welcome the opportunity to help prepare the meals that will serve as a centerpiece for our family’s celebrations.

I welcome the request to unpack the decorations and to work together to make our home an outward reflection of our inward beliefs.

I welcome the opportunity to offer to help when that offer is unexpected.

I welcome the opportunity to respond with ‘yes’ when the request I have received is unexpected.

I welcome the opportunity to create moments of connection in the busyness; periods of reflection in the push to get it all done.

I welcome the chance to live into the simple, meaningful lessons of this season of giving; to receive what comes in the spirit of friendship; to start with “yes.”


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