In Appreciation of Succinct Inspiration

March 26, 2023

Words matter. Or so I’ve been told.

One of the semi-apologetic phrases I often use with friends, work colleagues, and my wife is, “Don’t listen to the words I say. Seek the meaning behind those words.” That sounds like instructions an overly optimistic English teacher might have given the high school me, not knowing the limited depth of my mind. But it’s also a great line to use after saying something that came out all wrong.

Yeah. I’ve been there too often.

I pay more attention to words now. I read a little more carefully, and I listen to song lyrics a little harder. I am searching for beauty in the world, and words are a wonderful medium to reflect that beauty. And being a person with a rather short attention span – (OK – this is a true story – in my office, I have big windows looking out at a wooded area. And all throughout the day, squirrels are playing around out there. Squirrels! I have to really work not to be distracted. Also, I can tell a lot about the people I meet with by how they react when squirrels run by. I am always comforted by fellow distractible meeting attendees.) So where was I? Oh yes …

And being a person with a rather short attention span, one of my quests is the search for succinct beauty. 

I suppose that’s what poetry is. Finding succinct and powerful ways to encapsulate beauty, pain, and other complex concepts. And while I know there is beauty in the longer poems, for the reasons described above, I’m always looking for one-sentence treasures. 

I have always appreciated and found humor in a line of poetry my friend Billy Mitch recited back in high school. We were hanging out by the Arkansas River on a Friday night (that was the thing to do back then), when he stood up and said, “The moon hangs low, like a testicle in the sky.” I reached out this week to Billy Mitch to find out more about how he came up with it. He didn’t remember saying it (though I know he did), but he remembered that Robin Williams used a version of that line in a Shakespearean improvisation back in the 1970’s. Billy Mitch and Robin Williams are two of my favorite poets.

Ann Buxie is Malibu’s Poet Laureate. Back when I was principal at Malibu High School, she was a highly involved parent of one of our many outstanding students, and I still see her every once in a while in our neighborhood. Over dinner last Sunday night, my friend Karen shared a poem that Ann recently wrote:

I might not be all
I was, but I’m becoming 
what I’ve never been

Well . . . that’s pretty darn good. Ms. Buxie has delivered a one-sentence poem that hammers home points I’ve tried to make in several of my (much, much longer) blog posts. If Elaine’s (from Seinfeld) boss, Mr. Peterman, read one of my typical posts, I’m sure he would give me the same comment he gave her, “Well this certainly looks like a lot of words.” I know. I could learn the art of succinct inspiration. (The sound you hear right now is Dad yelling, “I’ve been telling you that your whole life!)

Like all high quality succinct poems, Ms. Buxie’s has so many different meanings. As we get older, we can lament the parts of life that challenge us more than they used to, or we can celebrate new learning that helps us evolve into someone different. We can focus on the hardships we have endured and how they have hardened or weakened us, or we can look at how those same hardships give us wisdom and perspective we would never otherwise have. Her three short lines have me looking at my future in a novel way.

My friend John is 94 years old. What is he doing? He’s on a tear of reading and learning about the history of African civilizations. He’s becoming a more learned person every day, and he’s a different person today than he was just a few years ago. Thanks for the inspiration, John. I want to be like you when I grow up.

So what am I doing each day, each week, and each month that is helping me to become what I’ve never been? And how am I celebrating that change and that growth?  That should be a key question I ask myself each day.

And I should not be lamenting my declining physical abilities, like the fact that I cannot compete with my half-my-age neighbor (Hi, Shane) in pickleball. Yes, he has way more pickleball skills than I do. And yes, my body is older, wider, and slower than his. To quote Toby Keith, “I ain’t as good as I once was. That’s just the cold, hard truth.”

But instead of lingering on that, the smart thing for me to do is simply to focus on becoming what I’ve never been.

I can do that.

And I can celebrate it.

But one day, Shane . . .

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here

And thanks to all of you who read my last post, 61 Life Lessons – A Work in Progress. It has become my 4th most-read post ever.

Photo of the Arkansas River at Murray Park by Jeff Woford

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  1. Michelle Krzmarzick says:

    Love it! A favorite of mine is from the SNL skit, Pumping up with Hans and Franz: Listen to me now and hear me later. It’s deeper than it appears!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      That’s an old school reference right there. Hans and Frans are poets that deserve more respect! Thanks, Michelle!

  2. Patty Flynn Elliot says:

    This is one of my favorites! Thanks, Mike.
    It could be that 61 is the age to start becoming what we have never been?! I think it just might be… but since I have always been “accelerated for my age” with skills, talent, arthritis and other plus/minus categories, I think you , Dr. MD Matthews, have inspired me to start at age 57. Game on!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      57! A spring chicken! I trust you to make it happen, Patty! Thanks.

  3. Seth Finn says:

    Great post Mike, that’s just something I hadn’t been thinking about, now I’ve got something else to work on!

    As for Ms. Buxie’s 3 lines above, phenomenal, so much wisdom, so few words.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Seth!

  4. Whitt says:

    Soooo enjoyed reading this post. Hit home for me in many ways! Truly! I love me some succinct inspiration!
    You continue to inspire me and make me think.

    I realize that after having the opportunity to be in meetings with you and learn from you for many years…I now have a short attention span. I absolutely attribute it to you. I became something I never was in meetings. My colleagues just shake their heads. Thanks for that. Truly!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      You’re welcome! When I first started working with you, you were almost too good. After working with me, that’s no longer a problem. You have plenty of faults! It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

  5. Kevin J McCarthy says:

    Dad McCarthy (91 years young) “Routine is more dangerous than adventure”

  6. Lynn Johnson says:

    Thank you for this lesson we all need embrace daily! M’s. Buxie’s deftly crafted one line especially reminded me of my amazing friend that survived sepsis to awaken as a quad amputee. She has embraced life and, indeed, became what she never was so many ways! Surely we can, as well!

  7. Kevin Skelly says:

    Mike, I love this. I recommend “Good Poems” by Garrison Keillor. I don’t like every poem I read, but this book book has some great ones. Here’s one you might like:

    The Life of a Day (by Tom Hennen)

    Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks, which can easily be seen if you look closely.

    But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people.

    Usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, such as autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle.

    For some reason we want to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time.

    We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real.

    Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze perfumed from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

  8. Carnation Milk, here I sit with a can in my hand…

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