One of the reminders I use for self-consolation and perspective whenever some challenging condition or situation has me appealing to the heavens for relief is, “It could always be worse.” It’s an inarguable point, given the sheer awfulness of calamities that beset human beings everywhere, each in their own time, some of them occurring now to dear friends even as I type these words.
So, an abstraction it most definitely is not.
Knowing and acknowledging we’re a long way from the bottom of suffering’s barrel is also a convenient means of maintaining humility, which is among the most treasured (and necessary!) spiritual virtues. After all, given the enormous sum total of human misery, who are we to think we should be spared such relatively trifling indignities as an occasional slam from the flu or a perceived snubbing by a longtime friend?
There it went, your happiness out the door to distant lands, where it ‘squandered a fortune’ before returning, like the Bible’s no-good prodigal son, back…to where?
Or even, in other cases, a terminal physical illness that has us stating, “Well, at least my mind is intact.”
I’m not sure exactly when I decided to simply stop feeling sorry for myself no matter how dark my mood or dim my prospects for righting it. But I do know it came to me with deep and enduring conviction, like one of those stout beams builders guide into mammoth blocks of cement that you just know will outlive you and all your children.
Ultimately, the point of treading lightly across the dark times that work their way into virtually every human life is so we can maintain a modicum of happiness and equanimity, by counting (or rather, accepting, with the aforementioned humility) whatever blessings the universe has also seen fit to send our way.
Because “Happiness,” to quote a lovely Jane Kenyon poem, could all be “Otherwise,” which is the second Kenyon poem we will pay homage to here.
By Jane Kenyon
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
Jane Kenyon did not herself have an easy life. Subject to severe bouts of depression (I often wonder whether “severe depression” should be an oxymoron, best redlined by astute editors who know the terrain), her life was cut short at age 47 in 1995 by leukemia, for which she endured chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in the last 15 months of her life.
Yet on her poetic side, with its acute observational powers and a heart open to beauty, she gives happiness its due, not as something she pined and primed for in a tireless quest for joy, but as a gift and bequeathal, coming unbidden, no matter any long absences it may have seen fit to take trying to find its own self.
There it went, your happiness out the door to distant lands, where it “squandered a fortune” before returning, like the Bible’s no-good prodigal son, back…to where? Nowhere much—just the same old “dust at your feet.”
But there’s magic in that dust, which inspires Kenyon to propose “a feast in honor of what was lost.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment, that honoring, which turns the human penchant for honoring/celebrating only the best among us—and within our own selves—on its head. The key to that perspective lies in the question she asks in the stanza’s first line: “And how can you not forgive?”
Because when you do, when you love all the prodigals, all the knight errants of your life pursuing their adventures only to find them winding up on your doorstep, haggard and hungry and beholding your dusty shoes, happiness has a knack for finding you—and saving its “most extreme form for you alone.”
And the thing is that happiness, or glimmers of it, at least, can come to everyone, can and does find everyone, in certain moments and places. The penultimate stanza introduces us to the concrete imagery of monks in their cells, work-weary women and neglected children, lovers, dogs, even pushers and store clerks. It leaves no one out of happiness’s persistent quest to manifest in the world.
It’s just what happiness does. That doesn’t mean everyone can or even should remain happy all the time. That’s impossible, and no-doubt ill-advised. (I have complained in this space before about common conceptions of heaven, where everyone sings and loves and hugs everyone else in a maximum, 24/7 joyfest, with nary a holiday nor summer vacation to stanch the monotony—God spare me, please!)
But whatever one’s circumstance, an open heart can serve as an open door for happiness to prowl in on little cat feet, or perhaps fly right into your life hell-bent on finding and freeing you, at least today, from the “unmerciful/hours of your despair.” That’s quite an assignment, but happiness does seem to have proven itself in countless lives for a very long time now.
Not a bad track record, considering…
By Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Such a simple and sweet acknowledgement of the seeming randomness of life’s blessings and curses. Perhaps most notable is that Kenyon is grateful for the former but not bitter about the latter.
You wake up, make decisions on what to do with your time, enjoy what you can, tend to what you must, and then at day’s end, you plan for the next one, while knowing, if you’re paying attention at all, that one day, for sure, “it will be otherwise.”
It’s as if a road sign states, “CALAMITY AHEAD,” but it fails to reveal the mileage to it. One, 10, 10,000 miles? Life rarely lets us know.
So in the meanwhile, you go back to your driving, and if you’re following along with Kenyon, maybe you put on some music, grab a peach from a bag in the back seat, take an appreciative gander at the sky and set your soul at ease, drinking in this very moment, here and now, while it is yours.
The brilliance of this work in its own right is hard to overstate; I just know that Ms. Kenyon would surely have been enchanted—enjoy!
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Poetry from “Jane Kenyon Collected Poems” (2007)
For a previous 2018 post on Ms. Kenyon’s poem, “Chrysanthemums,” see here.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Laughing Couple by ndintenfass https://www.flickr.com/photos/ndintenfass/
Sunflowers by Olga Nayda, United Arab Emirates https://unsplash.com/@olianayda
Walker by April Mo https://www.flickr.com/photos/april-mo/
Table setting by Matt Briney, Alexandria, Virginia https://unsplash.com/@mbriney
Thanks, Andrew. Reading your column brought me a great deal of happiness.
As does reading your comment, Robby, thank you. Heck, I’d have been pleased if it had given you a mere “smidgen” of happiness. But maybe my bar is set too low?
I am reminded of Arlo Guthrie’s song about the last guy. The gist of it is that when you’re having a tough time someone will come up to you and say yeah you’ve got it tough but look at Joe over there, he has it worse than you, which is supposed to make you feel better. Arlo starts musing about the last guy—nobody has it worse than him.
Not familiar with that one, Hank, though soon will be—sounds right up “Otherwise”‘s alley! I’m also imagining a spirited competition among would-be “last guys” in what I have heard referred to as a “pity party.” I dare not claim a spot for myself at that party, but would certainly be interested in observing the proceedings…
Amazing to read this today, Andrew. My dear friend’s daughter had a baby 5 days ago; and, her daughter’s father is dying as we speak. One can do nothing but offer love and accept the roller coaster. I love these poems.
And “otherwise” has been my theme song for this lifetime, without me knowing it! Thank you for summing it all up so adroitly and beautifully.
Your roller coaster image for some reason put me in mind of Joni’s “Circle Game,” which seems to be where we spend all the time left over that we’re not going up and down! That’s another “poem,” as it were, that deserves all the accolades heaped on it.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve come across that “one person dying, another birthing” phenomenon you have happening now. My father had multiple grandchildren from my siblings but, of course, always wanted one for me. I was late to that particular party, though before he died we had initiated adoption proceedings for what was to eventually give us our daughter. I didn’t tell him about it because it was far from certain at that time, and then he died, my daughter born some 18 months later. Now I regret not telling him so he could at least imagine the baby he told me years earlier he would someday “love to hold in my arms.”
And the seasons, they go round & round—regrets and triumphs, tragedies and joys…
Very glad you enjoyed these poems, Jeannette. Always good to know they’re worth sharing.
Very nice read Andrew, It made me think about the victims of Ian. When will they feel happy again? It won’t be when they come home and find that their house has no roof. I am sure it will not be as Pharrell Williams sings, “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” https://youtu.be/jv-pYB0Qw9A However, when asked by the press about their predicament, so many, some through tears, said that they were happy to be alive.