My Unfolding Universe

Several years ago, my wife was trying to raise funds to send a group of kids from our church on a mission trip to Washington, D.C. to build Habit for Humanity homes. It was a small church with a small congregation, comprised mostly of folks from all walks of life, and most of them of very modest means.

And that modesty was reflected in the items that had been donated for the “big” auction that she and the kids had spent several weeks organizing.

I saw some nice quilts and some gift baskets, but I really didn’t see any big-ticket items that were going to put 30 kids on a bus headed for D.C. any time soon.

That’s when she came over to point out a poem in an old, dented frame that had been donated by an elderly priest in the parish. Mostly, she was alerting me to the fact that the auction was nearly over yet nobody had bid on it.

Alerting, as in prodding me to place a bid on it.

Of course, she’s the heart of this Riley operation. I’m the skepticism. Particularly when I’m holding the checkbook. So I countered with my usual, “What do we need that for …?”

But I knew enough to know not to make eye contact with her, because I knew what would be staring back at me: That Look.

“Just go bid on it — I would hate to think something he donated would go without any bids,” she said.

So I reluctantly wandered over to the frame and, sure enough, not a single bid had been placed. I glanced over the poem, then shook my head and sighed as I wrote “$20” on the blank line. I checked back on it a couple times throughout the next hour, to make sure our bid was still the highest bid.

Every time I checked, we not only were the highest bid, we were the only bid.

So when the final bell sounded, we had, indeed, “won” the framed poem.

She was actually excited when I handed it to her. “It’s ours?!” she said.

Yup. It’s ours.

She carried that framed poem back home and instructed me to hang it in our hallway. Then it moved to our hallway in Indiana. Then South Carolina. Then, finally, here in North Carolina.

And it has hung there through all those years of the kids growing into toddlers and tweens and teens and now college-aged men. Through all the friends and family who have walked those hallways. Some still with us, some not.

Through all the arguments and the tears and the laughing in its hallways.

And that’s what I was thinking as I stood there Saturday with a toilet scrubber in my hand, pausing from my cleaning efforts, reading it as it hung above the toilet in our downstairs bathroom.

Still in that old, dented frame.

Only now, I read it a handful of times each week. And I have for about three years.

Each time, I’m captivated by the simplicity of its message. I think of the kind, elderly priest who has long since passed, and I am touched by his modest gesture. I think of his candor about his own struggles in life, the challenges of fathering his own flock, his battles with alcoholism. His insight was always so profound to me as a young father and husband trying to carve my own path with tools that were never provided to me in my own family.

I think of the kids who went on that trip and I think about the fact most of them had never left the county, much less traveled by bus halfway across the country. Eating bad cafeteria food and sleeping on gymnasium floors—and all because they were so excited to roll up their sleeves and help the disadvantaged.

I think of how many were truly moved by the experience, their lives forever changed. I think of how I am also a kid from a small town, transformed by experience.

I remember how my wife’s boss had initially laughed off her suggestion for the trip, citing all the reasons why it would never happen. Even as my wife made headway, her successes were met with more doubt, more pessimism. I chuckle at the notion my wife’s boss thought she could tell my wife that my wife would be unable do something. Admittedly, even I was skeptical, yet my wife would repeat her mantra: “If it’s meant to be, it will happen. If not, we’ll adjust.”

I stand there now and read the prose hanging from the wall and I think of our lots in life. I think of how we’re always right where we’re supposed to be at that very moment, whether we realize it or not. Whether we’re willing to accept it or not.

I marvel at how many times I must have walked past this frame without seeing the message. Perhaps hurrying off to work? Or rushing a child to practice? Or stewing about bills?

Then one day, for reasons I no longer question or doubt, I’m finally standing in a place where I can actually stop and see it.

And read it.

And hear it.

Yet there still are days I get it, and still days I don’t.

I think about all the other messages I must be walking past. I wonder where they hang, what they say, and when I might see them.

But most of all, I’m humbled by the notion that I once felt this poem in this old, dented frame was worthless.

Because today, nearly 20 years later, it’s priceless …

DESIDERATA

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

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.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

—Max Ehrmann

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Latest Comments

  1. Your Cuz says:

    Excellent! It’s nice to know I have one smart relative. (Don’t tell Pete I said that.) The priest gave great advice.

    Liked by 1 person

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