Thursday, May 11, 2017


The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

     So much of life is mere luck. We work hard, and do our best, and are careful as we go about our business. We urge our children to be cautious too, then send them out into the world with nothing more protective than a flimsy veil of good wishes and sincere prayers. When the truth is, it's all out of our hands. Sometimes life comes down to how the dice tumble, to where you are sitting when the shadow falls. 
     A classmate of our older son's was killed last week in Denmark, someone he knew, in his circle of close friends freshman year, someone my wife and I had met at school, a dynamic 21-year-old young woman. Through no fault of her own -- the small boat she was riding in on in Copenhagen harbor was hit by a jet ski, killing her and another student from Massachusetts. A senseless, tragic accident. 
     I was talking to a friend at work about it, about the complex feelings of muted sorrow, general unease, and inexpressible sympathy for her parents, of not being able to imagine what it must be like for them, of not even being sure whether it is something others should presume to think about. She shared this poem with me, and I am sharing it with you.

Any Case

–  by Wislawa Szymborska
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.

Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?

So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net’s mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can’t stop wondering at it, can’t be silent enough.
How quickly your heart is beating in me.
    —translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds


  1. thank you Neil for the poem and I'm sorry , for your son and others experiencing the effects of this persons death

  2. A wonderful poem; thanks for sharing.


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  4. wow, that's brutal. great poem though.

  5. One of those amazing works that are apparently so simple and easy, discussing experiences well known to everyone, that it seems hard to believe that it hasn't been done before.



  6. A fine poem by a Nobel Laureate. Life as a sequence of narrow escapes in not an unusual theme in literature, but our enemy is usually given divine agency: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods. They kill us for their sport." Or as, Woody Allen observed more recently, the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.

    On the simplicity of the statement, it was in line with her poetic manifesto.

    "Don't bear me ill will, speech,
    That I borrow weighty words
    Then labor heavily
    That they may seem light."


    1. Bion has a similar line I've always admired: "Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest, though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest."

  7. I find the opposite just as eerie. If not for a 3' length of chain swinging from a passing truck in 1947 that struck and broke the arm of the passenger my future dad was driving, they never would have had the need to go to the hospital where they met and proceeded to double date the nurses that attended to them and of course dad married the one, and 10 children, 21 grandchildren, and 25 great grandchildren popped into existence because of that tiny split second of randomness.
    Condolences. That is a sad happening.

  8. Sometimes, you envy those who died young who will never know the sorrows we run into as we make our way through life.

    1. Not me. Life is a brief flash between two enormous voids, and has to be savored for whatever it offers. I knew a girl who hung herself freshman year -- checked into the Orrington Hotel to do it, for some unknowable reason. I think of her from time to time -- I have a picture of us dancing at a party. But nothing close to "envy." However troubling, she missed a good life.


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