More and more I understand what people do
I appreciate the daily braveries clean white shirts
morning greetings between old men
Again I see how once the boat tips you never forget
the sensation of drowning
even if you sing yourself the familiar songs
from What People Do by Naomi Shihab Nye
I watched a movie several weeks back, about a small group of men who braved a storm off the coast of New England in 1952, to rescue the survivors of a tanker that had been split in two. It’s an inspiring true story of strength, bravery and skill in the face of almost certain death. I love stories like that, ones in which I see the best of what it means to be human put on display. I love happy endings: people rescued, wrongs righted and lives transformed and restored. We need those stories; we need to be reminded of what is good in the world, in us. We need to be reminded of what is possible, especially now, when stories of pain and brokenness come to us on every front and we are constantly made aware of all the ways in which we fail to make it right.
I came across the poem What People Do, a few days ago. In it the poet reflects on moments spent by her father’s bedside, as he waits ‘for his heart to mend’. Having spent time every day visiting my father, as he recovers from a recent stroke, I felt drawn to her words. And I started thinking about ‘daily braveries’. My father returned home on Saturday, after four weeks spent first in hospital and then in a care facility. There he started learning how to recover the use of his left arm, how to make new neural pathways from his brain to the hand that until so recently performed the intricate tasks I take so for granted. He must teach it again how to hold a fork, to know where it is in space.
Yesterday we went looking for something in his workshop and I thought about how just a few weeks ago he was at work with his power tools, making furniture. My father is a determined man, with a wonderful sense of humour. He is already formulating plans for how he can continue with his work, complete the projects he’s started: finish the cabinet for a friend, carve Percy the train’s face for his brother-in-law’s grandson. He is already engaging with the daily acts of courage he will need to move into a life that has changed.
I think of the daily struggles faced by so many, struggles that are often unseen and unknown even by those closest to them. People all around us are grieving the loss of family, or the loss of a life they thought would be different. Some are battling mental illness, physical illness or financial challenges.
I think of my own wrestling, sometimes with things I talk about, and sometimes with things I keep hidden in my heart. There are days when ‘clean white shirts’, or the simple act of getting out of bed is a victory. Some days, small accomplishments are the result of significant efforts of the will.
‘Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.’ It’s a popular quote, written by Philo of Alexandria (a philosopher who was born around 25 BC and died in 50 AD). I wonder how often we need these words for ourselves. Perhaps this week can be a moment for kindness and patience with our own hearts. And from that place of gentleness with ourselves, we can extend grace to the people around us.
(On the poetry page you will find a poem that I wrote about my father’s hands.)