I just got back from a quick trip back to my hometown in Gladwin, Michigan. There were difficult family matters to discuss. It was one of those big ol’ hard discussions no one wants to have, but it went well and there is peace in my heart.
While I was there, I visited one of my mother’s oldest friends in a rehabilitation unit at our local hospital. (“Rehab” means she might be able to return home after her stay.)
It was our first meeting. Mom and Franny (not her real name) became friends when Mom started teaching middle school, after I’d already left home for college, over forty years ago. I’ve heard many wonderful stories about her over the years, and was delighted to finally see her in person.
Many, many interesting things happened during this little get-together, all of them great subjects for elder care and hospice articles.
But today I’m going to write about why being a saint is just too damn hard. And why we should…okay, could…just aim just a little lower. (Me trying not to tell you what to do.)
My mom’s favorite story about Franny involves Franny’s divorce after thirty years of marriage, her husband remarrying a younger woman, and her daughter’s wedding soon after.
Franny bought two new dresses for the wedding: A mother-of-the-bride dress for the wedding and another for the reception. She wore the first dress, and then switched to the second for the reception.
But when she got to the reception, New Wife No. 2 was wearing the same dress.
Franny went back to the dressing room and switched back to her other dress.
Mom has told this story many times, and she retold it several times while we visited Franny. Every telling ends the same way: “I tell her, “Franny, you are too good to be on this earth. You’re a saint! When you die, you’re going straight up to heaven!” (Always accompanied by a sweep of her arm and a dramatic point toward the sky.
But Franny didn’t nod her head or respond in any way. She’s obviously heard this from Mom many times, too.
I was sitting by her side, holding her hand. I said, gently, “You sound like a woman who picks her battles.” She nodded, but didn’t say anything. So that wasn’t all it was.
I said, “You chose to let your daughter have her perfect day on her wedding.”
And Franny brightened and nodded, and smiled.
I don’t know how to describe this lightening of the spirit. But when we speak, or hear, our truth, there is a subtle transformation that is beautiful. And this was Franny’s truth. Not the saintliness. Not the logical.
It’s about a tiny choice made with love.
Franny is not comfortable with being called a saint. She is not a wealthy person–a second dress for the wedding was not a small expense for her. It must have been so hard to be at her daughter’s wedding, watching her say vows that Franny and her own husband had taken so many years before. After a (supposedly) good marriage of thirty years, her husband chose to say those vows with another woman, who was sharing this important day with her. And she had to stand alone.
Of course she was angry! And indignant, confused. Of course she felt sadness, and regret, and who knows what else.
But she had the power of her choice.
She could choose to create a scene. She could choose to make a statement by not changing. After all, Franny was the mother of the bride. No one would blame her if she stuck to her guns and wore that dress with her head held high.
But she knew if she did, it would be her daughter who would suffer the most.
And she chose to change her dress. She made a choice, a tiny choice, a choice bathed in love.
When we call people ‘saints’, we think we’re talking about people who don’t feel those bad emotions. They are just naturally good. It’s easy for them. It’s so very very hard for us. Practically impossible, in fact, for us to rise above our human nature, our lizard brain. We just can’t be saints.
And so we let other people be saints. Because it’s just too hard, and we know we would fail.
What Franny did was different.
She thought it all through.
Her daughter’s happiness was in her hands for one short moment.
She could choose: Whose need would she serve?
And then she made a tiny, gracious choice.
We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be good. We don’t have to even try to be a saint.
We can simply try to make a tiny, gracious choice, with love.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver
You can hear Mary Oliver reading this, and two other poems here If you’re short of time, start at 1:05. But if you have a few moments, “Tom Dance’s Gift of a White Bark Pinecone” is pretty wonderful, too.