Last summer, I bought a book of poetry. It was an impulse-buy, I admit, from a dainty, quaint little bookshop in the small town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
I was running errands for a freelance project that day and originally had no intentions of going to a bookstore. But as I walked along the sidewalk, dampened and stained from an early morning rainfall, the small shop caught my attention. Pausing briefly, I doubled-back to open the door, triggering the gentle jingle of an overhead bell that announced my intention to peruse the shelves inside.
Before long, well over an hour had passed while I explored every shelf, nook, and cranny. Beside one of the shelves was a small display of books propped and scattered intentionally across a coffee table. One small book, its cover brandished with a dark hand and surrounded with the vibrant colors of a peacock and several flowers, was perched purposefully on the way to the check-out desk.
It’s title was a simple, intriguing call-to-action, that proposed a challenge one couldn’t possibly ignore: How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope.
Six months later and while I’m still not even halfway through the book, I can feel it already influencing my life.
I’ve gotten into the habit of leaving it at my bedside table. I’ll read just one poem at a time, deliberating and re-rereading it several days over before moving onto the next.
While a few of them have definitely left me frustrated, confused, or relatively unimpressed (as poetry tends to do); there have been a handful that leave me captivated, contemplating its message for days or weeks on end. I turn them over in my head again and again, not moving on until I’m satisfied with what I’ve come away with.
And even then, as is typical with poetry, there always seems to be more left to uncover with every read.
Allow me to share a recent one that’s been on my mind lately, as well as some initial musings that barely begin to scratch the surface of its meaning.
* * *
ANOTHER DAY FILLED WITH SLEEVES OF LIGHT, and I carry ripened plums, waiting to find the one who is interested in tasting. How can we ever be known? Today the lily sends up a fifth white-tipped tendril, the promise of another flower opening, and I think, this must mean this plant is happy, here, in this house, by this window. Is this the right deduction? The taller plant leans and leans toward the light. I turn it away, and soon its big hands are reaching again toward what nourishes it, but which it can never touch. Couldn’t the yellowing leaves of the maple and their falling also be a sign of joy? Another kind of leaning into. A letting go of one thing to fall into another. A kind of trust I cannot imagine. -Heather Swan
* * *
If you feel so called, please read that slowly over again.
And a third time after that.
The one thing I find so enjoyable about this poem is its visual appeal right from the get-go.
ANOTHER DAY FILLED WITH SLEEVES OF LIGHT,
To me, this opening evokes the streaks of sunlight that shine their way into your surrounding environment, whether that be a forest floor or through your living room window.
It’s curious, however, that (s)he seems to shrug this occurrence off as something that happens on, ‘just another day,’ as though these sleeves of light appear on a daily basis.
At least in my experience, these moments are notable not only because of how few times they appear in my surroundings, but also in the fewer times I actually take the time to notice them when they’re there.
Nevertheless, as the sun arcs across the sky each day, it strives to fight through every cloud, tree, roof, wall, and barrier blocking its path; it’s a substantial effort for a goal so simple as illuminating any and every crevice it can find.
But maybe that’s the point.
and I carry ripened plums, waiting to find the one who is interested in tasting.
My first thought at this stanza was to ask: why plums? After all, they’re not exactly the first fruit that comes to mind.
But, according to The Present Tree:
“In Chinese philosophy, the Plum tree’s blossom is a symbol of winter ending and a herald of spring. The tree’s pale pink blossoms are cherished because they bloom vibrantly and so bravely amidst the winter chill. They symbolize perseverance and hope, as well as, beauty thriving in adverse circumstances.”
So it’s possible, then, that the protagonist is carrying more than just plums.
(S)he is carrying hope.
And evidently by the armful.
Yet, for all the plums (s)he has, it appears the protagonist is really just looking for someone to share them with.
So armed with a desire to share these ripened plums, which symbolize a realized hope, it then begs the question:
A hope for what?
How can we ever be known?
Wow. Talk about a one-liner here.
But allow me to respond with yet another question: known by whom?
I find this question rhetorical in nature and not really directed at anyone in particular. Instead, it seems introspective and contemplative for the protagonist to ponder.
Considering the number of years, decades, and in some cases, even a century, that some of us are fortunate enough to be alive and well on this Earth, how many of us truly know ourselves in all that time?
Much less anyone else.
Today the lily sends up a fifth white-tipped tendril, the promise of another flower opening, and I think, this must mean this plant is happy, here, in this house, by this window. Is this the right deduction?
We find ourselves with another metaphor here with the “white-tipped tendril” of a lily. So let’s take a look at Truly Experiences:
“Lilies have long been associated with love, devotion, purity, and fertility. The sweet and innocent beauty of the flower has ensured it remains tied to the ideas of fresh new life and rebirth.”
Furthermore, white lilies, in particular, are “symbolic of a feeling of rejuvenation within the soul. This rejuvenation can also lead to new beginnings or a different path.”
At first, this seems to make sense. The white lily is clearly happy, comfortable, and thriving in its environment considering it has now opened five-fold. After all, the protagonist appears to have enjoyed witnessing this flower’s growth, one tendril at a time.
At the same time, however, an interesting dichotomy is presented here. This is expressed by the fact that the protagonist questions their self-assurance that the lily is truly happy where it is, despite its joyful outward appearance. For while white lilies represent a rebirth, they may also signify a rejuvenation within the soul for something new…
Like a new beginning, a fresh start down a different path.
So, consider again, is the white lily’s happiness truly the right deduction?
The taller plant leans and leans toward the light. I turn it away, and soon its big hands are reaching again toward what nourishes it, but which it can never touch.
At this point, the protagonist has already paused to observe the lily, but now contemplates this taller plant beside it.
Now, there’s an old adage we’re all familiar with that states: “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
This adage comes to mind as I ponder the meaning of this stanza. The taller plant clearly needs the sunlight it’s reaching toward. For the taller plant, that sunlight means nourishment, survival, and perhaps…even happiness.
Yet something seems to prevent the sunlight, that same sunlight we perceived earlier fighting to illuminate anything and everything it could, from reaching the taller plant. But at least for this brief moment, it’s the protagonist’s hand that turns the plant away from what it so desperately desires.
Something tells me, however, there’s more in the taller plant’s way then just a hand.
In some respects, what the taller plant wants is exactly what it needs to survive: sunlight.
But then again, what if the taller plant is simply failing to realize that it already has what it needs to be happy? No matter how short-lived that happiness is doomed to be.
Couldn’t the yellowing leaves of the maple and their falling also be a sign of joy? Another kind of leaning into. A letting go of one thing to fall into another. A kind of trust I cannot imagine.
This closing stanza is where the poem hits home for me.
The night that I read it, I had just hiked the Overall Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park. It was my first opportunity to explore the national park since I moved to Virginia. I went with Dan Lynch, an old friend from high school, one of a few people who I’ve been fortunate to have already in the area when I moved here.
It was mid-to-late November and the last semblances of fall were withering away into a wintry slumber. A flurry of snow swirled around us that morning, carried by a biting wind that chased us throughout the day.
At the end of the trail, we found a cliff overlooking a waterfall cascading down from its perch and into the channel below.
Scanning the horizon against a blistering cold wind, it was probably the last full weekend where colorful leaves blanketed the Appalachian Mountains in a stunning display of autumn’s vibrancy.
Which means I simply can’t ignore the timing of reading that poem, nor the message of its closing stanza: an acknowledgment of the level of trust it takes to let go and lean into something new.
How the act of falling in and of itself, can be a sign of joy.
For many, 2021 was an incredibly difficult year. In some ways, my 2021 certainly was no exception. In other ways, 2021 was exactly what I needed to get me to where I am today.
And today, I’m pleased to say I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.
Looking back now, it seems that with every major move, decision, and change in my life was accompanied by a level of unremitting trust in myself and others in the world around me.
A level of trust that has no doubt wavered these past two years of tension, trial, and tribulation.
So as I look to let go of 2021 and lean into what’s ahead in 2022, it’s time I regain that level of trust that the protagonist, and even myself, cannot imagine.
But if I can imagine it, maybe the world can too.