Gaining Perspective: Two poems for muddy waters

Tim Farrand

Writing in his journal in 1851, Henry David Thoreau recalls his neighbor, a farmer who daily approaches his work with enjoyment with no hint of "haste and drudgery." Never working with the sole goal of profit, "he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him." [1]

No doubt there are many ups and downs within the farmer's year yet he would be able to meet them with calm consent since he finds his joy in the work itself and not in the value placed on the size of the crop.

It is being on the farm putting in an honest effort that gives meaning to the farmer. Paychecks come and go, crops range in quantity, yet he remains happy.

This brings to mind two poems that have been circulating in my mind. The first is Mary Oliver's poem "I Go Down to the Shore" which I find helps me to gain a larger perspective when my thoughts become too confined. It opens me up to the reality of being and urges me to not take myself so seriously:

Kauai, Hawaii 2022
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

The second poem is by Walt Whitman titled "When I Heard at the Close of Day." This poem helps me to get back to the center of what I value most. It is great to work, to achieve things one sets out to do, but it is just as important to realize that the greatest accomplishments are quite small when compared to the joys of companionship and love. If one focuses only on results they will find they end up no where. Our work needs to be countered with those elements in life that truly matter or else we will find we are filling time but gaining nothing:

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d,

And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy,

But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,

When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,

When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,

And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy,

O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,

And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend,

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.

April 28, 2022

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1. Henry David Thoreau, The Journal: 1837-1861, ed. Damion Searls (New York, New York: New York Review of Books, 2009), 86. Entry from October 4th, 1851.