As June edged into July, the summer increasingly seemed marked by “that sort” of day – disjointed, frustrating, compelling, anxiety-ridden, tiring and tiresome days.
There was plenty of heat in Houston and elsewhere being measured with thermometers. There was even more heat rising around the country that didn’t seem to fit into any known scale – heated words, over-heated emotions, simmering anger and pot-boiling rhetoric. While terrible thunderstorms – even an uncommonly strong derecho – raged across the Eastern Seaboard, there was enough political and social sturm und drang to make even the most avid Wagnerian happy.
More than once, while contemplating apocalyptic imagery from the Colorado wildfires and apocalyptic language from political commentators of every persuasion, I found myself thinking of a favorite poem written by Kay Ryan. Poet Laureate of the United States from 2008 to 2010, Ms. Ryan represented the U.S. at Poetry Parnassus, a festival held at Southbank Centre as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad.
Deeply personal yet not confessional, notable for its minimal use of the first-person singular in a society devoted to the great god “I”, Ryan’s poetry can be a tonic, a cure for what ails us. Take, for example, her spare and simple Making The Best of It.
However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.
I’ve always read the poem as a paean both to hope and to determined independence. Ryan seems to suggest that the “as thoughs” of life can be as important as the garden and its crop. Certainly across this country and around the world, people continue to live as though it doesn’t matter that their acreage is decreasing or that the heat of anger and the drying up of civility and compassion – worse by far than any effects of nature – are diminishing their harvest. In short, they have chosen to live as though celebrating beans is more important than counting beans, as though the flourishing of even the smallest bit of reality will outshine the tempting glitter of fantasy.
No one hopes for the carvings-up and parings-down of life. But when they come, as they do to us all, it’s worth considering what Ryan implies: that even a square foot of land allows for taking a stand, that one flourishing bean may nourish more than we can imagine.
And after all – if “making the best of it” seems simplistic or silly, a sign of resignation or an acknowledgement of defeat, what possible pleasure could lie in its opposite? Would any of us really wish to “make the worst of it”?