It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.
But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the backyard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in the green valleys and grew rife.
The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.
Let the smells of mint go heady and defenseless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we'd failed them by our disregard.
--Seamus Heany, from The Spirit Level
That line-- my last things will be first things slipping from me-- always gets me. I thought of this poem tonight sitting in my tiny Manhattan kitchen eating a mango that I've watched ripen for a week. I cut it carefully, and as I ate it I closed my eyes and savored it, trying not to be greedy for the next bite and the next, which was almost impossible.
When I was very young I lived in Florida. We had a mango tree in the back yard. I was the only one in my family who was not allergic to the skins and so from a very early age it was my job to pick and peel the mango for everyone. I treated it as a sacred ritual. I remember that my mother would hold me up to the tree because I was too little to reach the ripe fruit, and then I'd pull as hard as I could with both hands to get the fruit off its stalk and into her basket.
I almost never eat them now. We moved to Virginia when I was five. Seeing them all green and uniform under florescent supermarket lights still seems like sacrilege. But when I'm sick I crave them. There's good medicine in mango.
Eating that mango tonight, peeling it carefully, sucking on the juice from the pulp around its core, put me in touch with my grief. There's my small, personal grief, honoring my losses, remembering my first things, thinking about my last, and then there's grief over the earthquake in Haiti. Mango trees represent the largest tree population in Haiti. Its a country full of mangoes. Environmentalists have been using mangos and other tree crops as a way to both repair the damage done to the earth and at the same time improve the nutrition and earning potential of the people. In my mind I see a tree on its side, uprooted, its fruit smashed and scattered. I think of a child. Those small hands. I think of my last things, slipping away from me.