Famous

Pancake Edited

About a month ago I was sitting with my wife and son in a Southern California pancake house. The place was packed and the wait staff was a constant blur of efficient motion and friendly service. As I looked, nonchalantly, from table to table I saw couples and groups and families of beautiful souls eating together, smiling together…being together.

I didn’t recognize a single face in the restaurant, aside from the Cosands at my table, but I knew in an instant that every person in that space was famous.

It’s a wonderful thing to be famous. To be known by another person. To be recognized and cherished and celebrated.

It reminds me of one of my favorite poems…Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

I especially love the line about the bent photograph being famous to the one who carries it. That is the sort of fame I want…to be carried close to the hearts of people who know me and my failings and weaknesses and love me all the same.

Each of us has this story that we weave word by word with each step. Sometimes we’re the hero and sometimes we’re the villain. Sometimes we write with purposeful intent…shaping every phrase with care and creativity…and, other times, the story is pieced together from shards of inattentive lines that fall from a careless pen. I have to remind myself to use these pages of life with care…to diligently avoid allowing them to flip past with either meaningless blank spaces or with scribbles of actions or emotions that serve only to sully the narrative.

It’s not an easy task, this diligence. Getting caught up in insignificant wastes of time is all too easy and we typically don’t notice that we’ve done it until far too late. My oldest son – the fine young lad who shared that table with me in the pancake house – will turn 20 in December. He is living a thousand miles away from me now and has started his own story of independence. The majority of my influence and input is now in the past…a preface to where he chooses to go from here on. As a dad, I have been leafing through the years he has been my boy, hoping that I’ve given enough quality input to prepare him for what lies ahead. That I have modeled well…

Looking back at the poem, I notice the last stanza…the notion of wanting to be famous not because of doing anything spectacular but because we never forgot what we could do. That is so the way life is built. Not in spectacular moments when the spotlight is on, but in the quiet passages of plugging away at who we are and what we do and how we share with others.

I looked around the restaurant and saw a few dozen beautiful souls who had the choice every day – just like me – to tell a story of beauty and purpose and grace. To become that famous photograph in the pocket of those who love us.

I looked around my table and saw the cornerstones of my own story…people whose beautiful fame overlapped with my own.


“Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Used by permission of the author.

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