Here’s a photo of my mentor taken last winter while I was undergoing six weeks of heavy-duty radiation and chemotherapy at Mass General I was on auto pilot until I met him, neither up or down, happy or sad. All my energy was spent running the exhausting treadmill of treatment. Part of that regimen was my personal commitment to get exercise, no matter what, often by taking walks with Russet to a nearby park, part of the Emerald Isle along the Muddy River. On one of these journeys, walking woodenly along – I met the swan.
I felt an immediate kinship with him because of my past close relationship with a formidable alpha goose I had owned. But this was more than that: I was mesmerized by this indomitable bird who apparently felt the same way, shuffling over to get close to me, staring me in the face. In that instant, all my sterile preoccupations evaporated, replaced with pure joy. And maybe something more.
It was like this magnificent bird was carrying a message from the universe to wake me up: to spring me from the dungeon of my medical malaise to bask in the joys of just being alive. I felt tears running down my face as it hit me that this was as good as it gets: I’ve got to stop squandering such moments because I might not have that many of them left.
The renowned psychologist Carl Jung understood this, writing in his Red Book, “Joy at the smallest things comes to you only when you have accepted death…Therefore I behold death since it teaches me how to live.”1
In an additional bit of synchronicity, after I returned home to recuperate, a good friend sent me a Taoist meditation for that day of the year that said in part: “After long self-cultivation, one’s accumulated energy reaches a threshold and then bursts out full, breathing, and vibrant. When one’s spiritual energy emerges, it feels like a swan rising from the water.” It included this poem:
Like shadows color of cold,
Willow branches weep ice.
Swan rises dazzling in the sunlight.2
Still today, I rise in the sunlight with my swan, captivated by the small joys of life: a reflection in a puddle, a baby’s smile, a pleasant interaction with a store clerk. This discovery is, of course, not mine alone. As the poet Ross Gay writes in his bestseller, The Book of Delights: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.”3 …“The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study…Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”
Yes, life will, at times, be difficult, stressful, and traumatic. But even amidst the thunder and lightning, a ray of sun can unexpectedly pierce the clouds, giving birth to a stunning rainbow. There’s something cosmic and divine about a rainbow – or a swan– that can wake a person up, as it did for the poet Mary Oliver when her swan flew by:
Did you too see it…
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?4
1 Carl Jung: Red Book; page 275.
2 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Ming-Dao: 1992 HarperSanFrancisco
4 Swan by Mary Oliver, 2010. Beacon Press. p. 15