I woke up really early this morning. Looking now at the bottom right corner of my computer screen it’s still only 3:54 am…and I’ve been up awhile.
The disclaimer to this article is by way of confession. Though I’ve been a writer for half my life, I’ve always gotten…antsy whenever I’ve had to read or listen to poetry. It just always seems a bit too concentrated for want of a better term and sometimes the poet goes so over the top that I become embarrassed on their behalf. Yet there are exceptions:
The Road Less Traveled: Two exceptions: The first, Stopping by Woods, by Robert Frost. It was the line, “I took the road less traveled” that blew me away and gave me that extra nudge to, indeed, take a pretty untraveled road. And yes, it has made all the difference.
Desiderata: But the second poem, Desiderata, for whatever reasons, got through my barriers…and I have some rather formidable barriers. I’m printing it below so if you’re an eager beaver you can skip down…though I’d ask you to defer for a minute. And what prompted all this? A flash of realization from my Muse, my subconscious if you will, putting things into perspective and crystal clarity. If you’ve read more than one or two of my articles, you know I come down pretty hard on “stuff”…material things. After this little flash of perspective I’d like to come down even a little harder. I can pretty much guarantee that in those last days of your life you won’t be thinking about how big the video screen is on your new BMW, or whether the stock market is up ten points or down. That’s a gimmie. You’ll be wondering, “What was it all about? Who did I love? Who loved me? Did I leave the world a little bit better…or a little bit worse?” There’s still time.
Whatever religion you are or what color, race, gender, or political affiliation, if you look around honestly, things have gotten…a bit nasty lately and it seems to be accelerating. As superior as we hold ourselves to the animal kingdom ( a questionable premise in itself) I have as yet to witness even a nasty rattlesnake, great white shark or pack of wolves methodically try to wipe out another species. Most of it is based on eating to survive and feed their young. Unfortunately we can’t say the same… Our egos got too engorged, as well as our sense of self-importance and lust for power, sometimes absolute power.
When I first read Desiderata, I took it over to Pamela and plopped it down in front of her. She read it and said, “…wow”. I felt so strongly about one of the lines, I cut the words out of plate steel with my torch and placed them around the walls in my studio. “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars…you have a right to be here. And whether or not, it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding…as it should.” Strangely, it’s so basic that it’s easy to miss the meaning. If you say, “yeah, so what?” you read too fast. Even the astrophysicists agree. Look at your hands, your arms. They are literally, the same atoms that make up the stars, galaxies.
Graciousness and Class: The first time I heard the word, Class, defined, it was by John F. Kennedy. He said simply, Class is grace under pressure. So simple and yet so elegant. Class is how you act when everything goes to shit, not when everything is groovy.
Nancy LaMott: A short poignant vignette comes to mind. A number of years ago, we were watching Charles Grodin’s TV show. He introduced his old friend, a beautiful and highly accomplished singer, Nancy LaMott. She sang, Moon River with a simple piano accompaniment. It was amazing, but oddly, she didn’t stay for the usual banter afterwards. The next day when Grodin’s face flashed on the TV screen he was utterly wiped-out. Nancy had sung her song, then taken a taxi directly to the hospital where she died two hours later. Oh, by the way, she married her mate on her death bed. Grace under pressure? Good God, let’s try to get some more of that back in our collective lives.
Okay, as promised, I just printed the poem at the bottom: As a philo major, searcher for truth, sometimes Deist, secular humanist, even occasional atheist, it was and still is for me the single best poem and best advice I would give to anyone, regardless of where their heads are at. It helps to realize that you are an integral part of the universe.
An interesting side note: When I was much younger, a 45-rpm single entitled Desiderata came out. It was read by Les Crane, with some heavy-duty gospel singers behind him. If you tend to eschew things too sweet, it may be a bit rich for you…easy to dismiss. But it’s so damned good, I’m gambling on you seeing past that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yNJaKF9sXA
Some Parting Words… When I was finishing up my last art book, A Universe of Metal Sculpture, that little Muse inside me woke me up way too early as well. …She can be really annoying at times. I started writing Some Parting Words…words which when I’m not around anymore, may be of interest to my grandson…or even my son. They’re easy to read…sometimes very difficult to live by, but they’re true: I kicked off with an important one. Is there overlap with Desiderata? How could there not be? There aren’t an infinite number of foundation stones to life. Judge for yourself.
ONE: Keep your word. In this complicated world, maintaining the value of your word, and telling the truth has become a rarity. As a man, there will come a time when your word is the only thing you have. Protect this treasure and don’t let it become tarnished.
TWO: Learn the art of listening. Listening is not just remaining silent, until the other person stops talking. Listening seems simple enough, and yet it isn’t. Like a muscle, the less it is used the weaker it becomes. Listen to your friends, listen to your mate. Listen to those with whom you do business and listen to your enemies as well. It is one of the best ways to learn.
THREE: Luck. Yes, it exists…or at least it would seem to. The cliché goes this way: the harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s true, it’s really true.
FOUR: Be very careful what yardstick you choose to measure success. Success is not money, for money is an elusive measure and you will never have enough. Neither is fame or success. Fame can be the harshest mistress of all, leaving you without freedom, solitude, or privacy. And power, in and of itself, is not success, either. Though many would think so, it is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Look around you. Judge for yourself. Success is finding something in your life that you like to do, and finding a way to do it for your life’s work. It doesn’t have to be wondrous; it just has to fulfill you. And guess what the definition of happiness is…that’s right, they are the same.
FIVE: Look for the paradoxes of life. They are always there and knowing this will give you an inkling what to watch out for. The good things always have some cost to them, though those costs are often difficult to see. Know what those costs are. Strangely, bad things almost always have a good hidden inside as well, if only in the form of a life lesson.
SIX: Forgiving. At some point in your life, you will do something that requires forgiveness. You must be able to forgive yourself, and in learning how to do this, you will learn how to forgive others. There are no perfect people on this planet. And holding a grudge…not forgiving, will ultimately hurt you more than anyone else. For your own sake, live this rule.
SEVEN: Being careful. There is a time for it, such as in crossing streets and such. But there is a time to go for it, grab your dreams, and hold onto them. You do, indeed, have only one life. Cross those scary bridges. Burn them if you have to. But never be afraid to take a chance. It is the spice of life and it is what we covet in others who have become successful. Don’t come to the end of your life thinking, “gee…I wish…”
EIGHT: Love. Try not to compromise nor be cynical about love. Wait for the real thing.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
Henry – I too am considering final words. Your piece this morning has been an inspiration along those lines.
So glad I became aware of your writings.
When you do come up with your final words, I’m sure we’ll all be glad to hear them. As diverse as we humans are, I do think that when it finally comes down to it we want mostly the same things. To love, to be loved, to be respected, to make some difference on the planet if possible.
Very good article, Henry.
Thanks Mary Lou,
It’s difficult to find something that sums up the whole process so well, so accurately.
What a terrific way to begin my Sunday morning.
Thanks for the “light” reading.
My pleasure. Not sure if it was light…or heavy, maybe both. …Kind of Zen…
There was a throw-away line in an old British series, “All Creatures Great and Small” that summed it up as well, though in a different way. The character was Sigfried, the head veterinarian, and he said, “Life doesn’t bear up under close scrutiny.” Doesn’t sound like much until you’ve lived a bunch of decades. My version to that would be, “Life is like an onion. But if you just peel off individual layers and try to find where the “life” is…it’s the layers…”
I have always loved Desiderata. It sums up so much about life and Les Crane did us all a service by putting it to music the way the Byrds recorded Turn, Turn, Turn.
But I was really taken with your “Parting Words”. It felt a lot more real and just great advice ( without the back -up singers). You obviously have given this a lot of thought…very cogent, indeed.
I hope that when your grandson reads this for himself, that he will appreciate what went into it. Talk is cheap. Great ideas are to be treasured and your Parting Words should be posted in every school room across the country.
Thank you for your kind words. …Interesting that you picked The Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn as a comparison. When pushed to pick a really important song from the 60s that is the one that pops for me. Unfortunately, it seems that wisdom, wherever it is encountered, whether from a poem, a mentor, a song, or a book, is rarely heeded until that person has hit the skids themselves. I wonder what the world would be like if we could actually learn from those who have gone before us. Thanks for writing. You made my day.
Strong post, my friend!
I wanted to make sure I took the time to read…actually read, not peruse…the article before I wrote ti you. Great article. Your parting words speak many truths. One of your commenters said that they, “…should be posted in every school room across the country.”. I concur.
When I read your writings and have these email chats with you, I can easily connect, as it seems you and I have a very similar outlook on “things life”. You’re just much better and conveying them via the written word than I am.
There’s a line in Desiderata that rings dear to me: Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.. There comes a point in time/life where we need not necessarily give up what we think we know, but need to allow room for input into those knowns; most notably from our elders, whether they be 1 year or 30 years our senior. Those that have “been there, done that”, even if by mere minutes, have information or advice that can prove invaluable.
Very good stuff. Always looking forward to your articles.
Well, you made my day, Chris. Thanks.
One thing. When you get older, a funny thing starts to happen. You become more able to see wisdom from other places..other eras. Sometimes you can learn a huge life lesson from an eight year old, a teenager, if you care to really listen. Weird though…
How wonderful you should discover and recognize the same poem that has been my mantra since the seventies.
I remember a passing friend gave it to me. Somewhere I learned it was printed on the side of a 16th century church – author unknown. I could be wrong. But, I am not wrong on the impact it had for me during a particularly tough time in my life. I memorized it and often chose to just “stand still” and quietly recite – to me. As the years went by, I had it framed behind my desk and it was a gentle reminder of “what’s real in this life”. When favorite students graduated, I would give them two things – a pen and a wallet sized copy of Desiderata. In an informal group – we would discuss the use and need for both, as they ventured off into the next phase of their lives. I appreciate the need for your thoughts to be shared, this is for the basic life manual. Thanks.
It was actually written somewhere between 1906 and 1920 by Max Ehrmann. First time I heard it, however, (notice the verb)… It was on a 45 single spoken by Les Crane in between a couple of philo seminars in the late sixties, early seventies.
Later, when I got older, the words bit into me more and more as I came to understand them through my own personal lens of life. And that feeling has only grown over the years.
Your comments were charming and illuminating.