Things Could Have Been Otherwise

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 - 5:30 am

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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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • Garry Coulter

    I have found myself drawn back again to read this poem. Perhaps it is the climate of fear and hatred that permeate, at least in my mind, discourse in social media. The senseless killings of 6 men at a mosque in my country, Orwell’s 1984 with its 2 minutes of hate. Then Jane Kenyon’s words of simple pleasure common to all of us in this 1st world ” I got out of bed on 2 strong legs. It might have been otherwise “.
    Several years ago while traveling throughout India I would pass a young man whose body had been ravaged by leprosy sitting in the dust on the side of the road leading into a town. This was my first experience of this tragically disfiguring disease. Every day as I walked past him and placed a donation in his bowl (both hands and his feet were wrapped in rags with his face missing a nose ) he accepted thanks with a nod . On one occasion I placed, what for me was the price of a coffee back home. With the bill in his bowl he gifted me with a smile that continues to blind me to this day. This entire interaction took at most 30 seconds and cost me nothing yet I had been blessed by someone who reminded me to stop and just be human and realize that my ability to walk might have been otherwise.
    A year or two ago I was in an airport travelling for work, thinking about not being home when I sat down next to 2 young women talking in a language I did not understand. The talking began to become louder and more animated. Then the jokes started, still I had no idea what was being said. By the time my flight was called these two young people were laughing so hard they were literally falling off their seats. It set the tone for the rest of my day. The words ” we ate dinner together ” reminded me of the joy these two strangers gave me despite not knowing their words.
    We are all strangers who need each other despite ourselves.

  • Marguerite Theophil

    Thank you Parker Palmer, for your books and columns that awaken and inspire us. Re-reading Jane Kenyon’s poem that you gift us here is a precious reminder to me of the ordinary things that make life extraordinary when we pause and notice them.
    And thank you Garry Coulter for you comment and indeed, your own reminder that we are all strangers who need each other despite ourselves.
    If you have the time, I’d like to give you the link to my recent Times of India column, that speaks of ‘the other’ who is really a part of oneself. ( )

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