Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): W.S. Merwin on waiting at a red light

Yesterday morning, I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car in downtown Boston at a red light that never turned green. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. The chorus of blaring horns stretching for a block behind us didn’t tip us off to the fact that the light was broken.

We sat with the windows rolled down, feeling the sun on our forearms, while the drivers beside us also seemed unconcerned: The temperature was 60 degrees after a week of rain. A woman rhythmically bobbed her head to the radio. A convertible full of men laughed. It felt like the opening scene of “La La Land” (2016) — a musical number about to begin.

“Do you think this is what it’s like to live in a place where it’s warm year-round?” my friend asked. “Or do people get used to it?”

“They get used to it,” my other friend told her. The excitement comes from feeling something you haven’t felt in a long time, from feeling something as if it were the first time.

That’s when we realized the light wasn’t turning. We ran the red.

W.S. Merwin, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and environmental activist, has been writing for more than six decades. When I was 16, I went to one of his readings. I had been stuck in traffic and showed up just in time to find my seat. From the dark balcony, I listened to his measured and deep voice as he read a poem called “Place.”

“On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree,” Merwin read. “what for / not the fruit … I want the tree that stands / in the earth for the first time / with the sun / already going down / and the water / touching its roots / in the earth full of the dead / and the clouds passing / one by one / over its leaves.”

I walked out of the theater that night mesmerized, holding a new piece of insight tightly to my chest: “I want to be that tree.” I meant it in a figurative sense. I wanted to feel every experience that deeply: the sun, the ground beneath my feet, the things people said to me. Merwin offered a mode of living in which every occurrence was resonant and immediate, in which every sensation mattered for its own sake — not just as preparation for the future.

The problem, then and now, is that my mind keeps flitting to the future.

I thought of Merwin yesterday. After getting out of traffic, I went to sit in Copley Square next to a fountain that will turn on again in a few months. My friends and I talked about jobs: the two of them will be working in Boston next year. I will be in an unknown locale with an unknown occupation. Sitting there blissfully in the sunshine, I felt panic arise for a moment: fear that things are ending without a way forward — that I’ll be parked at the red light indefinitely.

But Merwin taught me that you can still feel the water against your roots, even in the place where things come to an end.

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