Ask Me by William Stafford


In a book I recently bought, I came across this fascinating poem by William Stafford:

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Like many readers, I suspect, I like the poem even if I’m not sure exactly what it means. Stafford’s meaning is enigmatic, yet mysteriously attractive. There is something deeply alluring about poetry that takes us to the edge of our understanding and leaves us there searching the depths of our soul.

In 1977 Stafford was asked if he could paraphrase his poem to provide greater insight into its meaning. This is what he said:

When it’s quiet and cold and we have some chance to interchange without hurry, confront me if you like with a challenge about whether to me my life is actually the sequence of events or exploits others would see. Well, those others tag along in my living, and some of them in fact have played significant roles in the narrative run of my world; they have intended either helping or hurting (but by implication in the way I am saying this you will know that neither effort is conclusive). So – ask me how important their good or bad intentions have been (both intentions get a drastic leveling judgment from this cool stating of it all.) You, too, will be entering that realm of maybe-help-maybe-hurt, by entering that far into my life by asking this serious question – so: I will stay still and consider. Out there will be the world confronting us both; we will both know we are surrounded by mystery, tremendous things that do not reveal themselves to us. That river, that world – and our lives – all share the depth and stillness of much more significance than our talk, or intentions. There is a steadiness and somehow a solace in knowing that what is around us so greatly surpasses our human concerns. [Bolding added] — William Stafford, 1977

Strive to Belong to the Community of Creators

Where joy is, creation has been. — Henri Bergson

While skimming through my favorite old philosophy textbook, I had the pleasure of discovering these comments in the book’s preface:

There are great multitudes of good and decent people out there in the world who belong to the category of creators rather than destroyers. But they are not the ones who are most visible or most audible, not the ones who talk mindlessly and endlessly on television, not the ones who have a judgmental reaction to everything that differs from their way of seeing. They make up a beautiful though silent community. But they are there.

While my wife, Lori, and I were lunching in a restaurant one day, she said to me, “How can you not feel alive if you are creating?” And Bergson once wrote, “Where joy is, creation has been.” This may be, for many of us, as near the answer to the meaning of life as we will find in this life. You’re alive as long as you’re creating. Ray Bradbury insists that it matters not what happens in the world; your moral obligation is keep on creating. It is the greatest of privileges to strive to belong to the community of creators.

Ask yourself, Do you strive to be a member of the Community of Creators? I would like to think I do, even if my membership is in need of constant renewal.