Poet, Mary Oliver, begins her poem “The Journey” with these words:
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.
I think we probably spend a lot of our lives wondering what it is we are supposed to do, what the meaning of our lives is, whether there is any purpose to what we do. The German poet, Rilke, would remind us that it’s not the answers to such questions that mean the most but living into the questions themselves.
Still, I think we also have moments–the kind that Oliver captures here–moments when we know what we have to do, or what things mean, or some sense of purpose about our lives. For me, these are fleeting–extremely welcome and cherished–but fleeting nevertheless. Maybe it’s because of the winds that try to pry that sense of knowing what I must do away from me. Those winds come from many directions: from unexpected events that overwhelm us; from people, even those close to us, who criticize or demean even while “trying to be helpful.” There’s nothing quite so disorienting than saying: “this is what I must do” only to have someone show up and say “you absolutely cannot do that thing.”
Many people in this country felt that way about the recent election. We had a sense that progress would continue in several important directions. The election results came as a horrible wind with cold fingers prying at our very foundations. The result for many is a kind of disorientation, and no one likes feeling that way. We want direction. We want meaning. We want purpose. We want some security.
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.
As in the poem, so in life. If we hold the memory of that moment when we knew, when we had direction, when we felt purpose, when we knew the meaning of things–the cold, distracting winds subside and the stars come out again. After being tested for a time, that knowing becomes even clearer. It becomes our own voice.
We don’t know what sort of period we enter as a nation. If it should be a dark and cold storm, we can trust that what we knew and felt within us before, what hopes for progress, what directions we traveled will emerge again, and they will be our own voices. And these voices will keep us company for a lifetime.