[Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, New York: HarperCollins, 1974, p. 24]
Ann Fowler picked this poem to share for last Thursday’s poetry reading. The theme was “color,” and these eight lines are all about that. In fifty words (a few more, if you count the contractions as two words), a simple and profound truth: what we are on the inside is so much more than a passing glance of the outside reveals.
Twenty-six years ago today, I stood with my love in a church chapel. We said our vows and began a whole new adventure. I know Dave better than most do, but I don’t kid myself into thinking I’ve seen all his inside colors. There’s a lot more to see.
But what I have seen these past twenty-six years: amazing.
[Maya Angelou, Contemporary Announcement; Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?; New York: Random House, 1983]
That wonderful feeling when there’s enough money to cover the basics: food, clothing, shelter. The dread and shame when there’s not enough money to cover the basics: food clothing, shelter. In just two paragraphs and a word short of a full deck’s count, Maya Angelou puts us in that rented apartment.
These words are being lived out by millions today, thirty plus years after Angelou published them. Will we ever learn that poverty is not a moral shortcoming or a character flaw?
Jesus, Saint Francis, and Gandhi all figured that out. I have hope the rest of us can, too.
Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends; New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1974, p. 166
It’s the last poem in the collection, followed by a couple of blank pages and an index. I could just pass it off as a clever rhyme, but I’ve spent too much time reading works of wisdom and mystical theology to do that. When I reach the last couple of pages in the book that is my life, I hope that I’ve done more than search for some coins in a pot. With just a couple of blank pages to go before I reach the obituary/index, I pray that the decades of pages I was given hold words of love and beautiful illustrations – not just the tracks of someone running as fast as possible to reach the end.
Seventeen years ago, I ordered heirloom hollyhocks from Burpee – three red and three yellow. Once the first summer passed, they bloomed faithfully every year. Being an heirloom variety, they reseeded themselves as well. But after the first five years, they didn’t stay the same: along with the red and yellow flowers, cross-pollination created blossoms of varying colors. About five years back, the original red and yellow didn’t return. Reseeding also caused a migration: plants grow halfway up the walkway rather than at the end, and a few have come up in my neighbor’s flower beds.
There’s something wonderful about a world that fosters change and growth in unexpected ways. I haven’t had a hand in the hollyhocks that grace my front walk in any meaningful way – a little weeding, watering, and feeding is all I’ve done. But these plants have been transformed through their own innate capacity. How wonderful is that!
There’s a generosity to nature that’s hard to deny when $19.95 spent seventeen years ago yields such beauty. Constantly growing and changing, constant in reappearance. But if I didn’t know where it all began, I doubt I’d appreciate this ever-transforming botanical miracle…
The weeds in the garden were well on their way to taking over the bed, so I spent an hour pulling them away from the tomatoes, chives, snow peas, and sunflowers. When I began, the sun was just peeking over the roof line; when I finished up, it was well on its way to the middle of the sky.
I don’t usually pay much attention to this daily arc through the sky – unless it’s to seek shade or because the sun’s heat is doing its best to turn my skin pink. But today, I began my weeding at the base of the sunflowers. In the hour I spent in the garden, the sunflowers changed their orientation: all of them began facing one direction and turned their faces to another by the time I stopped pulling weeds. The sun had moved, and they changed their orientation to continue facing it, following the life-giving light.
When I water the garden this evening, the sunflowers will be facing in the opposite direction to their morning orientation. It’s why they are called sunflowers, I suppose: though grounded in one particular place, they turn with the sun’s movement. If that isn’t an every day miracle, I don’t know what is.
It struck me that I can do the same thing. I cannot move from the particular time and circumstance that set the parameters of my life’s span, but I can choose my orientation. I can choose to be moved by something life-giving beyond myself. And within this very small, brief, and specific life span I call my own, I can choose to act accordingly.
Lord, keep my eyes and heart open. Only with your help can I look beyond myself and act with compassion for all the life you’ve created. Amen.
Years back, someone dear to me lost the path of peace and joy, and ended up in the spiritual wilderness of physical exhaustion and emotional darkness. Hurtful things were said and done, and our friendship was damaged. Eventually, after many years, the friendship was repaired and trust came back. But it wasn’t something that came quickly or easily for either of us. It took a lot of work to restore what had been such an easily formed friendship so many years ago.
What kept me in the friendship when it would have been easier to let it go? The certainty that my friend was a good person going through a bad time, not a fundamentally bad person.
Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama both practice forgiveness – releasing self and other from continued harm and hatred. They do not advocate forgetting: actions have consequences, and avoiding or denying them gets us nowhere but in more trouble. I doubt either one would have inspired so many people to live in love and peace had they not learned to forgive, remember, and move forward.
It takes a lot of strength to forgive, but it opens us up to joy again. Isn’t such a life worth the effort? If the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu are able to forgive the many destructive things that have happened in their lives, I’m willing to try to forgive the few in mine. What have I got to lose but suffering?
It’s the chapter title for Desmond Tutu’s, the Dalai Lama’s, and Douglas Abram’s first chapter on the Eight Pillars of Joy [Book of Joy, New York: Avery, 2016, p. 193]. In a nutshell, the main point is that how we experience something is a matter of how we look at it as well as a matter of what we are looking at:
A healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. Or, as the Buddha says in Dhammapada, “With our mind we create our own world.” (p.194)
Taking a broader perspective, thinking long-term rather than immediate, and including the wants and needs of others in our deliberations can get us out of our small box reality and into something larger and more life-giving. That’s true, but there’s more…
Sometimes a narrower focus brings to light beauty and joy that often goes unnoticed. This is especially true when life isn’t difficult. The value of a single tree can get lost in the forest.
Zooming in or stepping back, a change of perspective can open hearts and minds to the joy that each day holds, and sustain the soul in all circumstances.