Striving


I recently heard Marie Howe, Poet Laureate for the State of New York, respond to a question asking her to explore a deep and provocative statement she had offered in a lecture a few years earlier. The words she’d pieced together in that talk were ironic and stunning, something you’d expect from a master poet. I sat upright, glad the interviewer had made this query. I waited to receive a profound truth. Instead, Marie laughed at herself dismissively. “Oh, what a thing to say” — and Marie laughed more, like she had genuinely cracked herself up. “I have no idea what I meant with that.”

I wish those of us who stand behind a pulpit would follow Howe’s example more often. “Wait, everybody. I have no idea what I just said. That sounded good on paper Thursday, but let’s be honest – that’s just ridiculous.”

I wish more of us who put words to paper would be easy with this kind of humility. Since there’s nothing at stake for us, there’s no need for all the shame when our words fall flat and no need to hang our every hope on the validation of … I don’t even know who, I’m so confused these days.

But many of us — and I only use examples from the world I know best — are too busy pimping our words. We’re frantically rubbing our words together like two damp sticks, desperate for a flicker, desperate for someone to notice a spark. We are striving, striving – and we are exhausted.

I wish more of us who put children to bed at night and kiss our lover at day’s end, more of us who work to pay the mortgage and piece together a life, could walk slowly into the present grace, receiving whatever comes, be it brilliance or banality. I wish we would know the joy of receiving the one whiff of fresh cut grass, the one wave of a son looking out the window as his mom drives him off to school, the one hour that asks you to sit a while. To stop all the striving and sit.

But strive we do. Our world’s eaten up with it. We are so fearful that we will be forgotten, that we will be alone. We are so fearful that, after all our efforts, our life will be sand slipping through our fingers. We are so, so fearful. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to grasp. There will be enough love for us.

When I’m given to jealousy over those who receive more or when I’m left in the corner to doodle with the children while the adults laugh and clink drinks, my impulse is to strive, to fight, to yell all the louder to get attention. This is not the way of love. This is not the way of rest. This is not the good life.

Whatever I’m given will be enough. It will be enough. As Mary Oliver says, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones…”

When we push and pull to craft a name or a platform or a bank account, we end up with less, always less. St. Augustine offered a sobering word to our age: “By striving after more, man is diminished.” I see the world around me diminishing at a frightening pace. I pray to God it will stop. I pray I will stop.