When he was younger, our son attended a summer camp for a couple of years in Lake Charles, the southwest Louisiana city recently ravaged by Hurricane Laura.
We traveled to Lake Charles quite a few times in those summer camp years, our affection for the community growing with each trip. We often visited a deli there for lunch.
One July afternoon, tired and hungry after a long drive, we approached the deli counter to place our order. The sheer multitude of good stuff listed on the menu board briefly stumped my wife.
“It is hard to decide,” the nice lady at the cash register told us, her brows furrowing in mock concern. I quickly grasped the meaning of her wry gesture and smiled back. What our hostess was really saying, without having to spell it out, was this: If the biggest problem of this hot summer day was choosing which tasty entree to satisfy our hunger, then life wasn’t too bad.
I ordered my usual, corned beef on rye. Sitting with my sandwich in that air-conditioned restaurant, the windows fogged by the coolness of the room, I continued to think about the little exchange we’d just had at the cash register.
It was, indeed, true, that life was good that day. We were able to eat our fill without the slightest worry over paying the bill. The perch where we found ourselves was so comfortable we could have stayed there all afternoon. At the very least, we’d treat ourselves to ice cream for dessert.
Such simple things, but easy to take for granted until some stranger — or, as is often the case, a sudden turn of luck — reminds you that little blessings are fragile, easy to lose.
That idea is summed up beautifully in “Otherwise,” a Jane Kenyon poem I find myself writing about every few years.
“I got out of bed / on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been / otherwise. I ate / cereal, sweet / milk, ripe, flawless / peach. It might / have been otherwise. / I took the dog uphill / to the birch wood. / All morning I did / the work I love.”
As the poem continues, Kenyon lists other seemingly ordinary graces of her average day — a quiet dinner at the family table, a good bed in which to sleep as she plans the following day.
“But one day, I know,” Kenyon concludes, “it will be otherwise.”
That sober recognition of luck as a fickle thing might make “Otherwise” seem like a sinister poem. But Kenyon’s words are really a call to gratitude — an awareness that the unassuming abundance so many of us share isn’t automatic.
I’ve been thinking about all of this as Lake Charles struggles to rebound. This is a time to pull for that fair city, where life looks hard right now. One day soon, I hope, it will be otherwise.