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The On Being Project

Image By Bethany Birnie
Never Forget What You Can Do

Never Forget What You Can Do

For five days earlier this month, I was in California at the first On Being Gathering — hanging out with 500 good people from all over the U.S. and other parts of the world at a wonderful place called 1440 Multiversity near Santa Cruz.

This was perhaps the most diverse conference I’ve ever attended. Among other things, it was proof positive that in diversity there is a depth of understanding and at-homeness that will forever elude us when fear keeps us confined to the narrow bounds of our own “tribe.” Tribalism dumbs us down. Diversity wakes us up and moves us closer to enlightenment.

Among my many joys at the On Being Gathering was a chance to meet and talk with one of my all-time favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. I should say “meet and talk and laugh with,” because she laughs a lot, and so do I.

This morning I remembered Naomi’s poem “Famous.” I now know that this poem is absolutely true to who she is. I also know that is the kind of “famous” I want to be, the kind of “famous” all of us can be.

In the midst of a world where everything needs to be done right now, we can be famous for never forgetting what we can do — refusing to be overwhelmed but persistently making our small and yet vital contribution to the common good.

By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

You can listen to Naomi Shihab Nye read her own poems as part of the On Being Project’s Poetry Radio Project here

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