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The On Being Project

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Things Could Have Been Otherwise

Things Could Have Been Otherwise

What does it mean to live a good life? Millions of words have been written on the subject. But if I had to name just a few essentials, “gratitude” would surely be one of them. It’s a simple virtue. And yet it’s easy to forget how important it is to pause now and then in the midst of a busy day and be thankful.

Since I first read this Jane Kenyon poem 16 years ago, I’ve tried to keep reminding myself that “it might have been otherwise.” Remembering that fact takes me directly to gratitude for the ordinary, everyday things the poet celebrates.

The poem was written shortly before Kenyon died of leukemia at age 47. She wrote it knowing that things would soon be “otherwise” for her. I’m very grateful for the spirit she summoned as she was dying in order to leave us this gift, these words of reminder and guidance.

by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

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