On July 13, 1798, William Wordsworth returned to a specific place along the banks of the Wye River that flows through England and Wales. He sits above the murmuring waters, leaning against a dark sycamore tree. Years have passed and now he sees again the orchard trees, the steep and lofty cliffs, the wreaths of smoke curling up from cottage chimneys below. It is a scene of deep, abiding peace, beauty, and joy—food for his soul.
This moment, captured in “Tintern Abbey,” reminds him of his earlier wanderings in nature. In those youthful days, he remembers, his forays into the woods and vales were not so peaceful. He was, he recalls,
more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved.”
I first read those lines over forty years ago, sitting in a library at the University of Chicago where I was studying English lit. Just a few years earlier I had been a South Dakota boy, and now I was a long way from home. I was supposedly seeking a career I loved, but I knew even then I was “more like a man/ flying from something that he dreads.”
If there is some other way to launch a young life, I’ve never seen it. We all start with a bolt. But Wordsworth shows us what can eventually happen. After running away from the small, constraining life nipping at our heels, we can sit still and rest awhile. Long enough to breathe. Long enough to hear the “still, small voice” at the core of our being, telling us what it needs to be whole and well. As Mary Oliver wrote so brilliantly,
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
What we finally come to love is usually smaller, simpler, plainer. In other words, all the things that once filled us with dread. There is a kind of circling home, returning to whatever was given us by birth and the ordination of time and place. It isn’t perfect or complete, but it calls to us by name and we learn to love it, again, as-is, until it becomes, by some miracle, the most beautiful thing we know.
What are you running away from?
Question #10, “Why am I my own worst judge?” comes Thursday March 16.