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Posts Tagged ‘usefulness’

And do you know that you’re actually going to make more of a difference by focusing on politics than on the culture you’re passionate about? You don’t know what you might help make happen. Our world is full of the result of unintended as well as intended consequences. 

        —Yo-Yo Ma, “Yo-Yo Ma and the Meaning of Life” in The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 2020

When Rilke travelled through Russia

and studied Saint Francis

and fell in love with the married Salomé

and wrote poems for The Book of Hours,

he could not have known

that over a century later

a woman on another continent

would find herself wrestled by darkness

and find in his poems encouragement

to lean even deeper into darkness

until she could fall in love

with what she feared most.

He could not have known she would

tattoo his words into her memory

and scribe them into her blood

so whenever she walked or lay in the dark

she would have his words ever with her,

and they made her not only more brave

but more wildly alive than she’d been before.

And what if, as his parents had pushed,

Rilke had joined the military

and turned his back on poetry?

And what if he had not gotten himself expelled

from trade school so he could go on

to study literature and art?

What would have become of the woman

a hundred years later

had she not found his poem

and learned from him to love the dark?

Here’s a version of that poem that saved me, “You Darkness, That I Come From,” read by Meryl Streep.

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I Want a Lot

You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.

     —Rainer Maria Rilke, “You See, I Want a Lot,” trans. Robert Bly

Rilke, you were right.

I want so much to be useful.

Today I stared at the brown cardboard box

on the counter and marveled

at how a box knows exactly what it’s here to do—

it holds what needs to be held,

it keeps things together,

it helps things move where they need to go.

It is a fort for a child or a bed for a cat

or a makeshift sled in winter.

I hazard to say the box never worries

if it is enough. It simply folds up

when its task is done and waits to be of use again.

Or not. Oh, this longing to do more, to be more,

to serve more, because in every direction,

the need is so great. Oh, this fear

that no matter how much I do, it is never enough.

A man is not a crowbar, a hoe.

A woman is not a box,

but oh for a moment to be able

to keep things together.

I know it’s not how it works,

but oh, for a moment,

to hold all that needs to be held.

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All morning, I make myself useful—

mow the lawn and vacuum

the carpet and scrub the potatoes

and slice the melon and straighten

the shelves and look out the window

and see the snapdragons I planted

last spring not because they were useful,

but because they are so beautiful.

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Just because the new lemon squeezer
is useful does not mean I do not also admire it
for its cheerful yellow color and the surprising
weight of its grip in my hand. I have wanted
a lemon squeezer, not of course in the same way
that Romeo wanted Juliet, and not with the same
urgency that Rumi felt with his love for Shams.
Still, I have wanted it, longed for the ease of squeezing
a single lemon half into the chickpeas before they are hummus,
wanted it so I might juice a small lime into the blender already fragrant
with jalepeno and garlic, Thai basil and peanut oil.
It was a simple wish. And now, here it is
in my hands, not only useful but beautiful.
There will always be work to do.
A lemon squeezer by any other color might not squeeze as sweet—
though we use what’s at hand when we have to.

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