Leaning on a good metaphor

I have not been doing much with my blog over the past few weeks. My father passed away on Good Friday after a 7-month battle with cancer. Toward the end of his life, I chose to spend any spare time with him and my mother. I still found comfort in words, though. I continued to journal, from some pretty strange dreams to odd thoughts here and there. I also read some of my favorite authors to help me make sense of this piece of life, including Anne Lamott, Garrison Keillor, T.S. Eliot and others. In my opinion, there is nothing like a good metaphor to help one make sense out of life. If it comes from a slightly bent perspective with a sparkle of humor, even better.

One of my favorite metaphors comes from a poem by Ted Kooser, a past U.S. poet laureate. I first heard a reading from his book “Local Wonders” at the memorial service of one of my close friends, Lori Daves Edel. Kooser writes:

“Life is a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away. There’s a windy, perilous passage between each car and the next, and we steady ourselves and push across the iron couplers clenched beneath our feet. Because we are fearful and unsteady crossing through wind and noise, we more keenly feel the train rock under our legs, feel the steel rails give just a little under the weight, as if the rails were tightly stretched wire and there were nothing but air beneath them.

So many cars, so many passages. For you, there may be the dangerous passage of puberty, the wind hot and wild in your hair, followed by marriage, during which for a while you walk lightly under an infinite blue sky, then the rushing warm air of the birth of your first child. And then so soon, it seems, a door slams shut behind you, and you find yourself out in the cold where you learn that the first of your parents has died.

But the next car is warm and bright, and you take a deep breath and unbutton your coat and wipe your glasses. People on either side, so generous with their friendship, turn up their faces to you, and you warm your hands in theirs. Some of them stand and grip your shoulders in their strong fingers, and you gladly accept their embraces, though you may not know them well. How young you feel in their arms.

And so it goes, car after car, passage to passage. As you make your way forward, the roadbed seems to grow more irregular under the wheels as you walk along. ‘Poor workmanship,’ you think, and to steady yourself, you put your hands on people’s shoulders. So much of the world, colorful as flying leaves, clatters past beyond the windows while you try to be attentive to those you move among, maybe stopping to help someone up from their seat, maybe pausing to tell a stranger about something you saw in one of the cars through which you passed. Was it just yesterday or the day before? Could it have been a week ago, a month ago, perhaps a year?

The locomotive is up ahead somewhere, and you hope to have a minute’s talk with the engineer, just a minute to ask a few questions of him. You’re pretty sure he’ll be wearing a striped cap and have his red bandana around his neck, badges of his authority, and he’ll have his elbow crooked on the sill of the open window. How impassively he will be gazing at the passing world, as if he’s seen it all before. He knows just where the tracks will take us as they narrow and narrow and narrow ahead to the point where they seem to join.

But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together — stranger, acquaintance and friend — turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.”

Reprinted from Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

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