One morning this fall I was driving my toddler to her school. Some kind of construction company had been putting in natural gas pipes along the side of this road for some weeks, and, as usual, they were at it again that morning. I was happy that we passed before the work had begun because the guys with the stop and slow signs were not out yet to hinder my progress. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the stoplight a few miles down the road, I realized I had forgotten my cell phone. My day would be so inefficient without it; I knew I had to return.
So we turned around and started the drive back. The construction was just about underway, but they still had not put the sign holders out to stop traffic. Machines were whirring along on the side of the road, my toddler was babbling in the backseat, and I felt a little sleep deprived but content.
Suddenly one of the workers, a young dark-haired guy, ran toward my car from the side of the road. Strange, I thought, and irresponsible! Didn’t he see me? I swerved into the far lane where fortunately, no traffic was oncoming, my eyes wide with wonder and frustration at the close call.
In that instant, a massive tree limb fell exactly where my windshield would have been had I not swerved. I saw out of the corner of my eye that they were using one of the heavy equipment machines to cut large limbs.
He had saved me and my child from who knows what kind of harm, and he had saved his company from a major mistake of not protecting traffic from their work. And all he got in return was my fleeting irritation then extreme gratitude, but he knew of neither.
I drove on, slowly, a little shaken, musing on the many times in this life, in the moments of our days, where small actions by others affect us deeply, sometimes saving us from injury, sometimes saving our very lives. In that case, I saw it happen; in many cases, I am sure that I am unaware.
All that I am left with is a blind sort of gratitude for the many acts of courage, integrity, goodness – for the many moments when people do what they know is the right thing though it’s against common opinion – for the innumerable, unseen acts and thoughts that allow life and the fragile thread of harmony we have left to continue.
We are trying, I know that, and I am grateful to be a part of it. That young worker’s action reminded me of William Wordsworth’s lines in “Tintern Abbey”:
That best portion of a good man’s life,
his little , nameless, unremembered, acts
of kindness and love.
Our human world is so complicated and feels unnatural to me and to many of us, I know. Seeing the destruction of trees and the excavation of the earth on my weekly commute had been discouraging to me and symbolic of our common effect on the earth itself. In the same poem, Wordsworth writes of similar discouraging thoughts affecting him back in the late 1700s. As a young man he discovered that the peace found in nature, in the natural beauty of the world around us, is where “the heavy and the weary weight / of all this unintelligible world, / is lightened.”
I studied this poem in school and taught it as well, and I remember focusing on the peace Wordsworth found from nature. Upon looking at this poem now, I marvel that I notice and relate to a different point. As a young man, he says, nature was “all in all”, something separate from us, a place of peace and harmony removed from the din of what we call our civilized world. Now, from an older perspective, he finds something different:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (88 – 102)
May you find peace and gratitude during this time of year. Here, in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving, a celebration of gratitude for enough food, warmth, and love. It is an appropriate time to remember our oneness with all that is, with the natural world, with every life form on the earth – a time to remember the joy and wonder of the spirit that rolls through all things, even the human mind. Wordsworth reminds me to remain hopeful that the love we share for each other and for this world is noble, is powerful, and is the thing that will help us move toward a place and time of more harmony, more joy, and more peace. As Wordsworth says, “With an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.” The life of things is simpler – and more complicated – than we could ever understand. I shall be content to remain in awe of all that is and hold to gratitude for being alive and a part of it.
Lines from “Tintern Abbey” taken from http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww138.html
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798” was originally in the book Lyrical Ballads.