46: The tiniest nail.
- October 8, 2017 -
“Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream…”
I’ve been meditating on these words for some time now, this densely woven passage from the poet Mary Oliver’s latest collection, Upstream. To me, these words are as vivid and refreshing as the stream her speaker inhabits, and, like her, I wish only to linger within their bounds for as long as I can.
It’s a rich passage inviting any number of interpretations, but in my readings it most often evokes a reflection on the way in which I (try to) view success. You see, I’ve consistently found that I feel the most fulfilled, centered, and on-the-right-track when like, Oliver, I am able to view both myself and my work from the perspective of a tiny nail within a larger structure: when I am able to recognize that whatever I have contributed thus far — and whatever I may now be working towards —is merely one small piece of a larger whole, something significant in its own right though not altogether substantial.
(In other words, when I can acknowledge that anything I am now doing or have already done is not the end-all, be-all, but merely a portion of a gradually unfolding whole.)
To extend that metaphor of the nail in the house just a little bit further, though, a nail is more than just a small piece of something bigger. It’s also very cozily tucked into whatever space it happens to occupy, very content to be wherever it has been placed and to carry out its assigned task. It’s firmly rooted, it’s fixed, it’s unwavering.. It is, like Oliver says, “tiny but useful,” fully tuned to both the demands of the present and the needs of the future.
I like that. I think it presents us with a very concrete signpost towards which we can strive, this metaphor of a nail in a house. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and, because it’s something which we can readily picture in our mind’s eye, it’s something we can use as a point of anchorage during a frazzled or unfocused moment.
It’s uncomplicated. It’s grounding. And, to use Oliver’s words, it’s always done a great deal to keep me “in the stream:” to keep me immersed in “the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness” which, when I’m not careful, I sometimes let slip away.
Waving from my desk,