Learning, Poetry, Reading

Sixth Scents

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing this, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.

“Such good luck!” the neighbors explained.

“Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Such bad luck,” they said.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.

“Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Bad news is on its way. I can see it cresting on the water out near the horizon. I don’t want it to come, but there is nothing I can do to change its course.

If the past is prelude, then this wave will knock me flat. What to do? Curl, protect, contract the muscles? Gather breath?


When I was pregnant with Bug, I had the nose of a bloodhound. Women carrying kids share a superhuman ability to smell that chocolate brownie a loved one ate at lunch as well as the sour sweat on every article of clothing in the laundry basket. This quirk of biology is surrounded by speculation. Is the increased olfactory skill a direct survival mechanism or is it simply a side-effect of the hormones?

Whatever the reason, my trial superpower was an equal source of wonder and disgust. The last thing in the world I wanted to know was that in the camp kitchen a quarter mile away, the fish sticks were almost ready. Also, though, I would stop dead on a walk through the high desert hills and swoon at the scent of a fruit-laced flower tucked out of sight. Between the yucca and manzanita, I stepped through some crack in the universe and emerged into an orchard of mango trees. I rarely found the source, but my brain and body understood I had brushed against the thigh of Eden.

When the senses are at their most raw, everything stings. Even the beautiful things, and perhaps those most of all.

The past is not prelude. Collapse is not foreordained. News, like the farmer’s luck, is an animate thing. This moment is writing over whatever came before.

Disappointment is just a feeling. It is an emotional tide, washing through and then receding as all the others do. Sorrow, excitement, rage, joy. These things are fleeting. The only power they wield is that which we give ghosts and kings. They rule by our willing submission.

Here is the new posture as the slow wave of unwelcome news gathers force:

Whatever the habit most associated with enduring heartbreak, do the opposite. If the pull is to retreat into a cocoon of blankets, Ben & Jerry’s, and HBO, then call a friend and make a date for the gym.

Stay awake. Read one line of poetry. Clean one closet shelf. Say a single prayer.

Every garden is both rot and blossom. It is true that we can compile irrefutable evidence of our failure. It is equally true that we can build a rock-solid case for our own limitlessness. Do the latter. Gather evidence. Learn a song in a foreign tongue. Identify a constellation. Name your goodness. Expand.

Say something nice when you feel anything but.

Walk out into the bright day.

Resist self pity. Override self righteousness. Quit faking nonchalance.

Have the courage to care. Desire will shift with the tides, too. Yearn, and feel the hunger. Neither the wanting nor the hollow it leaves will scar you.

Stay tender. Stay loose.

All that needs to be already is.

Feel everything. You are stronger than you know. Also, you do not need strength at all.

Sniff the air and welcome the scouring approach of the sea.

Muth, John J. Zen Shorts. New York: Scholastic. 2005.

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