In a Dark Wood, The Good I Have Found
Dante, Inferno 1.1-9
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.
Go here to listen to a lovely reading of Dante’s Italian verses.
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh —
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
Translation © 2000 Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander; reprinted The Princeton Dante Project
The good I have found:
The older woman at the little grocery down the street, leaning against a display case of prepared foods, her expression a blend of friendliness and deep weariness. The way she listens to my words. Her own gratitude for my willingness to hear about her hometown in Mississippi. The cookie she slides into my bag.
The destitute, battered man standing in heat radiating off an asphalt parking lot. Just standing there. Our eye contact. “How you doin’?” he asks me, for God’s sake. And then to my own question: “Oh, I’m doin’ all right.” And seems to mean it.
The teacher who allowed himself to feel my son’s pain. Every day, open to that. His refusal to condescend. His genuine affection and admiration. Championing a son even to his parents.
The little note that my father wrote, arriving unlooked-for in someone’s mail. Open it. Unfold it. Feel a flutter in your heart. “I was so sorry to hear …” Or, “I am writing to congratulate you on your recent …” Or, “I am grateful for your …” To me or another child, simply, “Hang in there. ILY.”
That girl — so rare, this — who forgave me. Forgave betrayal, let go of the puzzlement and the pain. Forgave and offered friendship.
The person who ventured to do more than stand on the edge of the dark wood, calling my name. Who plunged in to find me and lead me by the hand to its edge. So difficult to do. To willingly “renew” the terror of one’s own wandering in a “savage, dense, and harsh” wood. To return again into that dreaded place, long since escaped, if one can be a comfort to someone in distress.
The woman who crossed the tracks every day when I was a child: to care for me, to love me, to let me go when I was too old to be nursed anymore. Without bitterness, seemingly, that when she went home in the evening, it was to poverty and troubles.
Every act of simple human kindness. The person who goes out of her way to communicate, in her own way, “You did something for me. You forgot about yourself and made me your priority. I am so grateful. ” The person who is always patient, understanding that we cannot be our best selves every minute of every day. The anonymous benefaction. Someone who is alert and sensitive to your embarrassment or humiliation or hurt feelings, and whose hand on your shoulder or willingness to meet your eye or deliberate use of your name is like balm spread gently over a raw wound.