Recently, I visited my local bookshop and picked up a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions, a compilation of her best poetry spanning fifty years. A morning at the beach, a sparrow singing on a tree branch, her poems brim with the lyricism of everyday living. Considering we’re in Advent, one poem particularly captivated me.
The Poet Thinks About the Donkey
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
I like to think that no matter how small or unimportant we may feel in the scheme of things, Oliver’s poem is a reminder that each of us carries the other on his back. Which brings me to the Frank Capra Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Just last week my son’s new neighbor moved into the apartment below him. An 87-year-old former Marine, the man had lost his wife to Covid in March. Now he lives alone. His daughter warned my son that “he likes to turn up the volume on the TV.” A few nights ago, as he pulled up in his car, Daniel heard the man’s TV blaring as far as the parking lot. He knocked on the door to ask him to lower it and a few moments later, the man opened the door and invited him in. He was watching It’s a Wonderful Life. I often tried to get my sons to watch that movie as a family, but maybe because there were so many new films that came out during the Christmas holidays when they were growing up, we never did sit down together. Now, with his new neighbor, Daniel watched Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed live the quintessential moments of loss, love and the power of community.
Last night, I tuned in on the movie, which is streaming on Amazon. While the story is a bit old-fashioned, the message that life doesn’t always turn out the way we hoped or expected resonates. But as Stewart’s character George Bailey, a man on the verge of suicide learns, our blessings, if we look, are many. Bailey “didn’t understand” until the end that his humble life changed the lives of countless others.
A dark December night and an unexpected invitation from a neighbor … it can be a wonderful life. Like Oliver’s little donkey, we lift one “dusty hoof” and move forward, carrying that stranger on our back, hopefully, with love.
This post also appeared in The Writer’s Corner at: http://www.stmarkshb.org