Thinking the sweetest flower to find
I pricked my finger to the bone
And left the sweetest flower behind"--from the ballad 'Lord Jamie Douglass'
Sometimes you miss out on the things you think yourself particularly adept at living out.
I always like part of the county fair in which one pays a dollar to pick up floating ducks. On the underside of each duck, a number is painted. The number matches to a prize behind the carnival barker.
Most of the ducks match up to an airplane propelled by a rubber band, or a superball shaped like a living eyeball. But supposedly one or two ducks lead to stuffed bears or tigers or outsize green snakes.
It's that moment of picking up the duck--it's that moment that I like. There the duck is--one of several identical ducks--and you pick up the duck and you find out whether you are flying balsa airplanes or showing off a real stuffed prize. Who cares what the real answer is (by the way, the answer is always balsa, unless instead of a cheap carnival, it is a cake walk, when sometimes the answer is an exuberant and surprising German Chocolate cake).
I read on one of those law message boards I like to visit the lament of a person nearly finished with college. It went like this "I have a 3.7 from an ordinary school and I made a 160 on the LSAT. Yet xyz Top Law School just advised me that they are "holding" my application for later consideration once all applications are received. What can I do? Do you think that sending in a fourth letter of recommendation will make a difference?". Of course, in real life, people sometimes do send in that fourth letter or write a note on hand-written stationery to the special placement professor. But so much more often, it's like watching those curious poker games like "Texas Hold 'Em" on cable television. The cards are cut and dealt, the bets are laid, and it's time to watch the river card turn up until inexorably the tide has carried matters to the last cards, and the reckoning of losers and winners.
It's so easy to see the cards as having all been dealt in so many things, because so many of us reap repeatedly cards that we have dealt. Yet there are more variables than one's own choices. This year has been a stark reminder that sometimes one reaps fortune and misfortune one did not particularly sow. Those folks on the Bridge over the San Luis Rey in the novel ultimately had in common only the fact of their unfortunate tragedy. It's a bit curious to me that some folks blame everything on the individual, even towers in Pisa lean and sometimes fall.
I think, though, that it's important to realize how one is a weaver participating in creating the tapestry of one's own way of living. I think, too, that one is one's own best appraiser of the tapestry one hopes to achieve. I have known a great many people who felt that their bit of weaving was inadequate merely because their finished product was not rich. Perhaps not too ironically, it's often people who really dislike the rich who wish to Heavens they could be among them. After all, nobody could play a better symphony than someone who has never played a note. By the same token, I meet people who grow up with substantial material resources whose lives are charred by seeing day to day living as a shallow pursuit enlivened only by money. There's a story for every paradigm, and a paradigm for every storyteller.
I think that misplaced priorities defeat many a noble quest. I am not prepared in this post to define what priorities each person should pursue. I think that's a very individual things, boundaried only by some very basic things about human decency and baselines of civility. I notice, though, that people sometimes have before them the chance to take home a small cactus in bloom--and instead they reach out,
grasp desperately at the thorns, and turn away, wounded, from the experience.
I think perhaps it's tricky to get oneself to admit that it's okay to want simple things--friends, love, family (genetic or re-defined), perhaps the miracles of good health or a great meal. Even the most intellectual pursuits are at root simple things--ways to try to wrap one's mind around some ultimate reality. The complexities all come from the diffusion of conflict emotions and uncertainty.
It's so fashionable to be conflicted and uncertain about things that it gets hard to resist the temptation to just experience confusion instead of accepting one's limited skill set, and trying to find ways to get to the place one wishes to be. After all, there are always set-backs. Nothing ever works out quite the way it was diagrammed on the chalkboard. Things go askew in undreamt ways, and dreams evaporate into chilly waking states.
I find myself, though, continually paying my dollar and picking up that duck. I don't have to win the big bear. I'm just happy getting to play at all. When one is in school, it's hard to connect that "A" one strives to achieve with some concrete advancement it can mean in later life. Similarly, one fails to see that relating well to people might help avoid being alone, or that a good friend is a treasure worth more than almost any tiff.
I'm a bit wary of using the term "thankful", because it does not fit some folks views of the world. But it always seems to me to be important to find the good and praiseworthy in what one does get. It's not that one should become one's own opiate, excusing any maltreatment or injustice with pollyanna-like savoir faire. But a realization that health or equanimity are not granted to all, and are granted to none for all that long, seems to me to matter.
I think of it in terms of lying on a quilt, looking up into a partly cloudy sky. The sun is warm, the clouds make fascinating shapes, the colors stand out like a miracle. Yet it's possible to see nothing of that sky, and instead to see only images of minor tiffs at work, or crises completely irrelevant in the great scheme of things, but so distracting.
It's not as if one can snap one's fingers and solve a mood. But it's good to remember that finding a way to live with a little grace is worth the work, even if it requires efforts and perhaps extra attention and care.
I realize, sometimes, how much I want to reach down and pick up the little potted cactus in bloom, and yet my fingers have been pierced with the thorns that break the skin when I stop focusing the little plant, and get agitated about the whir of things all around. Sometimes one is presented with a small-ish life, but sometimes that's a life not only worth living, but one that one aspires to live.