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Still Desiderata-ing After All These Years

There are words that you hear as if they were meant for you. This is how I've always felt about the prose poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann.


I probably heard it for the first time in the 1970s, when I was just starting to pay attention to such things and when the poem, penned in the 1920s, experienced a resurgence in popularity.


The word “Desiderata” comes from Latin and means “things that are desired.” 

The language Ehrmann uses is a little out of vogue: feign and vexatious, and there are tons of not-currently-in-favor semicolons. But no matter how old fashioned, the text has been alive to me since I first encountered it.


I have committed pieces of the poem to memory and frequently phrases pop into my head as inspiration (remember what peace there may be in silence) or as admonishment (listen to others; even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their stories).


Most importantly, the text of Desiderata has been a teacher, a prayer, a solace at crucial times in my life.


Mali, West Africa, circa 1984

I was a Peace Corps trainee, trying to learn everything I could in a three-month period before moving into my assigned village. How to speak and write in French and Bambara. How to behave respectfully in a new culture. How to build woodburning stoves (primary project), and teach prenatal nutrition to pregnant women (secondary project). It was overwhelming.


Throughout the training, current volunteers were paraded in front of us, each with their own take on “How to be a successful PCV.” We received lots of advice, some of it conflicting and some of it counter to what I knew about my own abilities.


Fortunately, I had tucked a copy of Desiderata into my luggage before leaving home. The words that comforted me in this time were:


If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself… 

and

Be yourself.


Above: I am obviously thrilled with the gift,

in recognition of my stove building efforts in NTarla, Mali.


Los Angeles, California, circa 1988

A more fish out of water you couldn’t have found than me, in L.A., after my stint in Africa, working for a big corporation on Wilshire Boulevard. We’re talking major culture shock. I drew inspiration from:


Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time…

and 

go placidly amid the noise and haste...


Lusk, Wyoming, 9/11

We all have memories of that day, and mine involve digging out my tattered copy of Desiderata, the same one I had with me in Mali, and holding on to these words:


Everywhere life is full of heroism…


Cheyenne, Wyoming, January, 2012


As we dealt with the news of my stepdaughter’s death by suicide, I was forced to draw on every bit of spiritual insight I could find.


Again, Desiderata helped:


Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune

and

in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul…

and

be gentle with yourself… 

and

Be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

 


The poem is taped up in my writing room now—a newer copy, since the old one disintegrated. I looked at it recently, on May 11th, the day of our 28th wedding anniversary, and smiled:


Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

 

And while I have you, I’ll share the words that never fail me to remind me to be humble, to recognize I may not have the perspective to decide whether everything is tilting toward apocalypse or, conversely, we are evolving toward enlightenment:


And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should... it is still a beautiful world.


Who knows what part of Desiderata I will tuck into my heart’s pocket next?



9 Comments


I enjoy reading your blogs, Lynn. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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Lovely, and hard, but lovely. I am not familiar with this poem so will check it out!

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Before your time, maybe... 🙂 But I think you'd like it.

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Lovely and relateable.

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Kind of like you... 🤗

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Great poem and wonderful job connecting its significance to your life over many years and life experiences in a wide variety of settings! Your piece makes me think that I could get students to write a similar piece about a song since so many of them identify with music and lyrics as a way to make sense of their worlds, especiallyin these challenging times! Keep on writing and sharing your writing, Lynn!

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That's a great idea, Leif--so many of us relate to music and lyrics, and that would probably provide the students with a window into emotions in a way that text alone may not.

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tchr73
tchr73
May 24

Excellent writing as usual. I loved the poem. Jill A

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Thanks, Jill--for reading and commenting.

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