The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?


The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Reflections on Mythologies

I’m in the middle of rereading a book I’ve owned for so long that it’s a $3.95 trade paperback. In Mythologies, W.B. Yeats collected the stories of Irish country people who believed in ghosts, visitations from the devil, strange spirit animals in the woods, and of course, those incomprehensible Others, the faeries. The convictions of those who have seen such apparitions seem profoundly unlike the modern mind, and yet Yeats collected these tales in 1902. Not that long ago. Just a few generations.

The mythical way of seeing the world is still alive.

Many American Indian tribes had—and in some cases still have—relationships with small, magical people. In James D. Doss’s Charlie Moon mystery series, shaman Daisy Perika communicates often with the Utes’ little man, the pitukupf. At an Art Hop in Truth or Consequences back in August I struck up a conversation with an Indian woman—I’ve forgotten her tribe—who was a strong believer in the Little People. She was pleased to meet someone who else knew about them.

I was introduced to them a number of years ago when I had a student who was Mohegan from Connecticut. She gave me a book, Medicine Trails, about her great aunt, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a tribal leader and educator and a keeper of Mohegan traditions, including the relationship with the Makiawisug, the Little People. I was so intrigued, I located a beautifully illustrated children’s book about them, Makiawisug: The Gift of the Little People. In Mohegan beliefs, the health of the earth is interdependent with the care and wellbeing of the Makiawisug. Respect for them is one with respect for the mother earth.

North American Little People are more benevolent than the Irish faeries, who tend to cause mischief, or steal people away to their world. They can be beautiful, yet sometimes frightening. When they are helpful, it’s as puzzling as when they’re harmful. In Yeats’s book, woman of the faeries is described as having a face as calm as that of an animal. It’s a reminder of their otherness. They are neither good nor evil, and all the more mysterious because if it. Their motives are inscrutable, and they ask mortals not to look too closely or inquire too much. I love his description of their world as the dim kingdom.

I was stretching after a run a few days ago and the autumn wind and leaves and water seemed to be breathing with a layer of lives unseen. The idea of another world interwoven with ours, sometimes visible, sometimes not, is somehow most compelling at this time of year, when the days grow short and dreams grow long.

A friend who has no religious beliefs at all told me that when she was a child, she saw a fairy. She doesn’t say she imagined it, or thought she saw it, but says—with conviction— that she did.