When risk is choosing this one or that, I always think of Linda Pastan’s poem, “Ethics.”
In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter–the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
Linda Pastan, from the collection Waiting for My Life (1981)
The poem sets up an array of caveats—whether the woman is loved or a stranger, whether or not one is mature in experience or just beginning to experience life, whether or not to choose—each requires risking this or that, one or the other, or not at all.
Mark Nepo writes:
“There is no substitute for genuine risk…the very core issues we avoid return, sometimes with different faces, but still, we are brought full circle to them, again and again” (The Book of Awakening).
Avoiding risk, somewhat akin to eschewing responsibility, seems to be a circular choice every time. Yet, in oneness—here and there, this and that–risk is whole, not one or the other, not old or young but the one truth that resides in us:
Maybe that’s why the poem puts the annual question to children, who are no strangers to truth.
Rhythm of ROW80 Sunday Scheduling:
Alternating short fiction, novel, and blog posts as daily writing
Doing the Tao with Dyer, still stuck in duality
Nepo morning meditation continues