When dog days of summer get me down, sometimes a Hilda-the-Housekeeper cleanout helps to clear the air and refresh my sweltering spirits. On a recent hose-down I discovered a neon pink plastic lanyard at the bottom of a basket of cat toys.

Made at summer camp two years ago, it was a gift from a small person, presented with a shy smile and the words, “I really don’t know what a lanyard is, but I made it, just for you.”

A little thing, barely three inches long, I had misplaced it, and then forgotten about it. But when I read this poem by poet Billy Collins, I suddenly felt ashamed and saddened that I had been so cavalier in discounting its importance. Finding it again felt huge––like a redemption.

Reminding me once again that the most important thing we can do to honor others is simply to pay attention. And accept every gift, no matter how trivial –– especially a handmade one –– as the gift of a whole human heart.


The Lanyard

The other day I was richocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past––
a past where I sat a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a laynard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and them led me out in to the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift––not the archaic truth

that you never can repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

from Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems


—Susan Dworski

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5 replies on “Life Lesson from a Simple Kid’s Lanyard

  1. Thanks for this, Susan. One of my favorite Collins poems, and such a good thing to remember. (And I didn’t realize kids at camp in today’s world still made lanyards… I wonder if ANYONE knows what they’re supposed to be used for!)

  2. Ah, Jeanne, after all these years I’m still not actually sure what lanyards are for. Something for horses, or tying up boats?

    But yes, they do still make them at camp. And as Sally noted in her DIY instructions, they’re probably still used for the same reason they always were: to settle the kids down during rest period and give them some space to daydream.


  3. When I was a kid, I used them to carry keys, and a whistle (???). These days, I might fashion a white one for the reading glasses I am always putting on and taking off (and hunting for).

  4. More info on the lanyard question Jeanne raised…

    I came upon this wonderful paragraph from “The Ashley Book of Knots,” quoted in a re-read of E. Annie Proulx’s great Newfoundland novel, “The Shipping News.”

    “A sailor has little opportunity at sea to replace and article that is lost overboard, so knotted lanyards are attached to everything movable that is carried aloft: marlingspikes and fids, paint cans and slush buckets, pencils, eyeglasses, hats, snuffboxes, jackknives, tobacco and monkey pouches, amulets, bosuns’ whistles, watches, binoculars, pipes and keys are all made fast around the neck, shoulder, or wrist, or else are attached to a buttonhole, belt, or suspender.”

  5. This is great: If you formatted all the uses now separated by commas as a list, you’d get quite a long one. Bring back the lanyard!

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