When the Plow Comes Through

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It’s Burns Day, and for the first time in many years I read the famous “To a Mouse” poem, or more fully “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”. It’s totally a different poem that I remember it being.

I remember the beginning, of course, with the tiny timorous beast running away. And then the plowman feels bad that the mouse is scared of him, when he bears the mouse no ill-will, bearing no grudge for her tiny thefts. But then, the turn that I didn’t really remember, when the plowman-poet thinks about the mouse building her nest:

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

All that effort for nothing. The mouse—not the somewhat comical mouse of the beginning but a perceptive and persistent mouse who has carefully planned and laboriously executed a quite well-laid plan—is suddenly a really good character. Tho’ of course, the plan goes a’gley, when the plow comes through. But it’s not a bad plan! It’s not like there was really a better plan, and she completely screwed up. There wasn’t an available mostly-buried cinder block for the uplifted rats to move with a pulley system. Given the situation, the mouse did excellent work. And was still facing a brutal, homeless, probably deadly winter.

And the thing is, for me, that I have been spending a lot of time feeling like that mouse. My various institutions—my household, my town, my employer, my synagogue, my nation-state—cobble together the best plan they can, and just hope that we’ll figure something else out when the plow comes through.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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