The following post first appeared here two years ago. I rerun it to honor the memory of all those who have offered the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
It was another Friday pepperoni-mushroom-onion-pizza night, home at last from my long commute, talking about the week with my husband. But it wasn’t just another Friday night. It was a Friday night in October of 2001, a month after the world collapsed in on itself, after the storm arrived, the storm that we should have known was coming had we been listening to the Man Watching. If we had only listened to what the far-off fields were saying.
My recollection of that period in history is one of both hunkering down and moving on. Many folks I knew dug in, put up bunkers, mainly emotional ones, but also ones with real ramifications, like choosing to not do anything (not travel, not trade in stock, not make big purchases, not change jobs, etc.). But even more people I knew made really big decisions within the six months after 9/11, life changing decisions. The sudden then steady images over the news of the immovable being permanently moved, of dust-covered people we could have known (we could have been) running for their lives, created this wave of realization that life is too short to fight such tiny battles and put off the big dreams. It was a national catalytic moment.
My husband and I were among the dreamers and the deciders, the catalyzed. That Friday night over our usual pepperoni, mushroom, and onion pizza with a couple Diet Cokes thrown in for good measure, we decided to put our house on the market. Just like that. After years of talking about moving to Maine, as we nibbled on the last bits of crust that momentous evening, we looked at each other and said, “What are we waiting for?”
You see, before that point (I can easily say now in retrospect), what we had been fighting was “so tiny,” to borrow from Rilke. The “far off fields” had been saying things to us that we needed to bear with friends and love with sisters. We had not loved our dreams well enough until then. Until we had been dominated by the immense storm, we could not move past the small fights that only made us weaker with every win.
Today, a decade-plus older and hopefully the wee bit wiser, even my more noble fights still look petty when I stop and realize my need to be “dominated /as things do by some immense storm.” As things do. Like trees that bend in the wind. Like a river that floods then contracts.
If only I could always pick the really big and important fights, the ones with eternal consequences, the ones that are not so newsworthy, but really matter. Perhaps then I “would become strong too, and not need names.”
Another slice of pizza couldn’t hurt, either.
I dedicate this post to the countless warriors (the ones who no longer need names) who chose to fight not the tiny but the greater, to let themselves be dominated, ultimately “being defeated, decisively” for this country and for freedom. Let them grow in our memory.
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly (Harper & Row, New York, 1981)