Sometimes in the morning when I have the house to myself, I leave it behind and set out for a walk in the woods. It’s a short drive to a wide dusty space just off the road where a trail leads through the pines and curves around the lakeshore to a solitary picnic table.
In autumn, the fallen pine needles cushion your steps and muffle the sound of your passing. Here and there between the trees, a beached kayak awaits its owner, and, if you arrive early enough, you might get here before the anglers come for the perch and bass. With a thermos of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and book of good poems, I have everything I need to feed body and soul.
As a psychologist, I know that it is important to take some time every now and then to live in the moment, to follow your breath, and watch your thoughts drift by like white clouds in a blue sky.
Whoever gave that advice must have been talking about a sky like the one that frames this day that finds me sitting alone at a picnic table by the lake with a thermos of coffee and book of good poems. And so I breathe, long inhalations just like the yoga instructor says and long exhalations to relax the muscles and teach the body that the breath leads the way.
It occurs to me that this would be a good place to do some exercises prescribed for my back. A tree does nicely for the wall that I am supposed to lean against while I move my hip to the right and my right leg over my left to create a long curve to keep things in their proper alignment. If life has taught me anything, it has taught me the importance of keeping things aligned. Align your goals with your abilities, your actions with your principles, your tasks with your time. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to stand up straight and align your backbone.
The thermos has kept the coffee pleasantly warm, and I open the book of good poems, which its editor, Garrison Keillor, has aptly titled, Good Poems. The first section contains poems of gratitude. Thomas Lux begins his “Poem in Thanks” with these lines, “Lord Whoever, thank you for this air / I’m about to in- and exhale.” It is as if the poet was with me, watching me breathe, conspiring, or, to parse the Latin root, breathing with me as my soul fills with gratitude for this perfect morning.
That’s what good poems do. They give voice to our feelings in much the same way that good psychotherapy helps us find the words for the inchoate stirrings of our hearts. The power of the word written in a poem or spoken by a caring listener tames these movements that shape our moods and actions.
Anne Sexton’s “Welcome Morning” reminds me that there is no detail of our daily routine that cannot bring us joy when seen in the right perspective. “There is joy / in all,” she writes, and then goes on to enumerate everything that contributes to the pleasures of starting her day. “All this,” she says, “is God.”
All this is deserving of a thank-you that the poet writes on her palm lest it be forgotten and go unspoken. Jane Kenyon knew how easy it is to take the daily pleasures of life for granted and how quickly everything can change. In her poem “Otherwise,” she begins by telling us, “I got out of bed / on two strong legs. / It might have been / otherwise.” Her simple breakfast, a walk in the woods with her dog, a dinner shared with her life partner, a comfortable place to sleep and plan another day – all of this, she tells us, “might have been otherwise.” All of this, she says, one day will be otherwise.
And so, the days pass for us all, filled with work and leisure, pleasures and challenges, strength and frailty, opportunities to reach out to others, or simply to sit by the side of a lake.
It is impossible to know what this day will bring and hard enough to imagine the many different ways it is already unfolding beyond this quiet place in nature. This morning’s joy may be otherwise by sunset and is already tempered by the awareness that it was not there for so many others at the start of their day.
Our country is divided as never before in our lifetime while the Coronavirus adds to the world’s toll of sickness, death, pain, and anguish. We cannot know what tomorrow will bring, but whatever happens, suffering will always be part of the human equation.
Even so, whatever happens cannot erase the memory of a perfect morning, the hope that more of our fellow men and women can enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and the gratitude that wells up in our hearts for the gifts we have received. And so I share these thoughts in the spirit of Anne Sexton’s poem of thanks that ends with her reminding us that “The Joy that isn’t shared… / dies young.”