My mom, who is eighty, gets up in the dark every morning. She likes to sit near the window in her living room, mug of tea in hand, and watch the sun come up across the pond. “I don’t know how many sunrises I have left,” she said to me recently. “And I don’t want to miss a single one.”
I may be twenty-two years younger than she is, but I feel exactly the same way. Over here on my side of town I’m up, too, watching the day begin. Sometimes my mom sends me a photo of her sunrise, and I respond with a photo of mine. You might think that after ten years of living in this house with its southeasterly view of mountains and sunrises, I’d take the dawn for granted. In fact, the opposite is true. What my husband and I have learned from rising early enough to observe the beginnings of hundreds of days here is that no two sunrises are alike. Of course I could sleep through the quiet drama, or lose myself in the morning headlines or my Facebook news feed, or go about my business of getting breakfast ready and coffee made. The day arrives, after all, whether I’m bearing witness to it or not.
But still, morning after morning, I stand in the kitchen or, often enough out in the yard in my slippers, and take note of the changing light. It’s only a moment or two, a moment carved out of time and devoted simply to pausing and being and seeing. And every morning, almost without fail, my own heart lifts with the sun – for so begins another day on the planet, another day of being here, another day of striving to do a better job of being human than I did yesterday, another shot at more gracefully executing this precious, fleeting, endlessly surprising challenge of being alive.
An early riser, an optimist by nature, a lover of mornings, I’m always eager to launch myself into the day. And it doesn’t take much to make me happy: A cup of strong coffee laced with cream or a handful of frozen blueberries from my summer-stash in the freezer, a silly joke shared with my husband, a good-morning text from a far-away friend, the hairy woodpecker hanging upside-down at the feeder, busily extracting his morning ration of sunflower seeds, a sky fluid with traveling clouds executing their own sublime choreography, or a soft grey mantle of mist draped across the nearby hills. Looking around at the life I’m privileged to live, I see much to be grateful for.
Yet I’m also conscious these days, in a way I never have been before, that simple gratitude for all that’s good in the world just isn’t enough anymore. At least, it’s not enough for me. Gratitude, if it’s to mean anything at all, must go hand in hand with something else, something less familiar and less comfortable; something I can only call commitment – a willingness on my part to confront with clear eyes all that is wrong, unjust, and dangerous.
This is new. I’ll confess there’s always been a part of me that preferred to leave the world’s intractable, large-scale problems to others to solve. Introvert and homebody that I am, I mostly choose to work behind the scenes and within a smaller circle. Give me a bedside to attend, a friend or loved one who could use a hand or a hug, some small gesture or invisible offering that might ease the way for someone near and dear, and I show up and offer myself wholeheartedly. Give me a worthy cause to support, a garden to weed, a difficult letter to write, or a hot meal to prepare and deliver to a doorstep, and I’m on solid turf. Much of my adult life has been based on faith in our interconnectedness, and each of these small, intimate acts strengthens those connections. Cultivate peace in my heart, embody peace in my relationships, create peace in our home, I believed, and that peace would quietly ripple outward, from me to my loved ones, across our threshold, and on into the larger world.
And so, whenever I stopped long enough to reflect on such questions as “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?” the answer seemed pretty clear. I actually found it long ago in some lines by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, words I’ve quoted often because they’ve served me so well as a kind of north star, timeless wisdom by which to navigate:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself reconsidering. Is it really enough to mend the part of the world within my reach? My own small gestures seem like paltry offerings in the face of so much uncertainty, so much divisiveness, so much need.
These days, as I stand in my kitchen and watch the sun begin its early morning ascent, I marvel as always at the world’s beauty. And yet my heart does not lift. Instead it fills and sometimes overflows, not just with gratitude but with anxiety and, too, with a silent, pervasive sorrow for the suffering just beyond my reach. It feels as if the very values upon which we’ve built our country, and with which my husband and I raised our children, are under assault in our nation’s capitol. As a friend wrote me this morning after listening to the threats and promises being made in Washington this week: “No arts. No national parks. No public education. When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that money could be raised for the war effort by cutting funding for the arts, he responded, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’” What indeed.
There are many men and women in public office who are fighting to preserve all that is threatened now, from health care to open spaces. But for those dedicated to serving the good of all, for those who are working at this moment to protect our planet and all its people, it is an uphill battle. Their willingness to dig in and stand tall inspires me. There are writers and journalists holding the new decision-makers accountable, explaining what’s at stake, and helping us understand the story beneath the story. Their insights and analysis and commitment to truth are more urgently needed than ever. At the same time, in the words and deeds of the new president and his chosen team, there is little evidence of honesty, fair play, kindness, integrity, empathy, or even basic civility and competence. Amid the noise and bluster, we have not seen much concern for a warming planet under siege nor much reverence for the soul and spirit of our country. I listen and look in vain for words of compassion, cooperation, and a sense of responsibility toward those who are marginalized or vulnerable or different.
And yet, somehow we must affirm and uphold our true values nonetheless. We must become our best selves and our own leaders. We must be even more clear about what matters. We must sustain our belief in our country’s essential goodness even as we stand firm against injustice and intolerance and ineptitude. I do want to celebrate with gratitude the arrival of each new day, just as I’ve always done. But the truth is, there’s a new gravity to all my waking hours. And my feelings as I watch these wintry January dawns are more somber than sweet.
Today, as one era ends and a new one begins, I am grappling with the notion of mending the part of the world within my reach. In the past “the world within my reach” has meant my family and friends and loved ones. It has meant a community of readers and online colleagues and fellow moms and kindred souls. It has meant a home where love and laughter and tears are shared. It has meant a quiet country road where neighbors willingly set their political differences aside and make a point instead of waving hello and greeting one another’s dogs and stopping on walks to pick up trash. It has meant a town where we show up in person each day to buy our groceries and books and clothes, and where the folks at the cash registers know nearly every customer by name.
I love this small corner of the earth. Here in my quiet New England town the days and nights proceed as they always have, even as our nation’s capitol undergoes a tension-filled transfer of power and the winds of change and protest gather strength across the land. Here, the sun climbs up over the crest of Pack Monadnock at about 7:15 and I am there to see it, in awe as always at the eternal rhythms of the universe. As I sit typing these words, dusk falls and the sun slips away, vanishing into the trees to the west well before five. There is snow blanketing the field, slush in the road, a deep, imperturbable silence in the woods as night settles over all. My friends and family are nearby. My dog sleeps at my feet. Both our children are thriving in their own adult lives. Our health is fine and our bills are paid and there will be good food on the dinner table tonight.
So yes, I do have much to be grateful for. And at the same time, I feel the weight of a great deal of world-fixing to be done. And that work, I now know, really is up to me, whether I’m comfortable taking it on or not. It’s up to us. The only thing I know for sure is this: We will not accomplish much if we allow hatred and self-interest and our own small-time fears to divide us. We will not heal what needs healing if we leave the big problems for someone else to solve. Now more than ever, we must indeed stretch out to mend the part of the world within our reach. And we must do something else, too. We must stretch even more and reach even farther than we ever dreamed possible.
(This is part one of a three-part post. Next week: some thoughts about how each of us can stand up and show our souls. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.” )
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. […]
In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes