Erin is of Scottish ancestry and very proud of her heritage and culture. As I was making dinner on Monday, she informed me that it was Burns Night in Scotland. Every January 25, they celebrate the legacy of the Scottish poet and storyteller, Robert Burns, a writer who is revered in his home country and whose writings have become part of our everyday vernacular.
Burns lived in the late 1700s and produced works like Auld Lang Syne and My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose whose images are very familiar to all of us, even if we didn’t realize where they came from. Talking Burns took me back to my college English lit days, recalling that Burns was always one of my favorites. Even if deciphering the rough Scottish version of old-timey English made it extra challenging, I loved Tam O’Shanter and A Man’s a Man For A’ That, otherwise known as Is There For Honest Poverty.
Burns Night is celebrated in Scotland, as many things I’m sure, with a raucous party. There is what is known as Burns Supper, which consists of haggis (eaten, I’m sure, while someone recites another Burns classic, Address to a Haggis), some kind of smoked fish soup and, of course, scotch.
So we took note of this special night in Scottish heritage and read a few Burns poems aloud. Erin chose the very lovely My Heart’s in the Highlands. For me, one of my favorites has always been To A Mouse. In fact, I think this work takes on all new relevance in the wake of the year 2020 and the onset of the age of COVID.
The poem is about a mouse who worked hard on his winter shelter, only to have it destroyed by a plow. Legend has it that Burns was inspired to write this when he actually plowed through a mouse burrow, and wrote the entire thing while still holding the plow. Only a Scotsman would effectively combine plowing and poetry into one activity.
Anyway, when I think back to where I was last year at this time, I think of all the things I had in mind for the year 2020. All the plans and ambitions I was so sure of. But like the mouse, none of us know when or how the hand of fate will intervene. Planning is an assumption of future conditions. True peace and wisdom comes from mindfulness of the present and the flexibility to adapt. As Burns writes:
You saw the fields laid bare and empty,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! The cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.
That small heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry.
As a person who has struggled with years of anxiety trying to somehow anticipate and manage unknown future problems, these words ring true and give me peace. We are all on a wild ride, and all any of us can do is the best with what we’re handed. Burns knew that. He only lived for 37 years and suffered bad health the last few of those, but boy did he pack in a lot of life and legacy. Here we are, 225 years later and people are eating haggis and drinking whiskey in his honor.
So belated happy Burns Night, dear reader. We didn’t eat any haggis, but it’s possible I had a sip or two of whiskey. And maybe the best laid plans do go aft awry, and foresight can be in vain, but either way, living the moment is always a good idea.
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.