Relax by Ellen Bass

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat —
the one you never really liked — will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up — drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice — one white, one black — scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

Relax

One of my favourite poets, Ellen Bass writes compellingly about the challenges of life, always leaving us with an uplift. Right from the first line we are told: Bad things are going to happen. And then she goes on to imagine everything from fungus on your tomatoes to melted ice cream to a shrunken cashmere sweater. From there it is errant husbands or wives, heartbreaking daughters and sons, cat disease and death, loss of your keys, your hair, and your memory. Anything sounding familiar to you here?

Then she introduces the Buddhist story you’ve probably heard – the woman trapped by a tiger above and below, the yin and yang mice gnawing the vine as the woman sees a perfect wild strawberry. So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse / in your throat. This is it, the truth that all these things can happen. And, you can still eat the strawberry, taste the juice and feel how the tiny seeds crunch between your teeth.

Here is the choice: to seize the present moment, to see the gifts before us especially when life is difficult. As Ellen herself says in a 2014 interview: And to praise this gorgeous, tender, terrifying life that is ours for just a second or two.

It’s strawberry season friends – no time like the present to practice. Relax.


16 thoughts on “Relax by Ellen Bass

  1. Amazing! The gift of poetry. Thank you Jan for always being tuned in to the moment when you share this wonderful gift with all of us.

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  2. Thank you, Jan. I too am a big fan of Ellen Bass. Just reading your reminder, “to see the gifts before us especially when life is difficult” makes me stop and look out the window and revel in the greenery. Love – Mary Lou

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  3. I love this poem for all the reasons above, and the poet too. Just saw her this week on the online reading she did with others from her publisher, such as Pulitzer winner Jericho Brown (she & he do many workshops together, I have noticed). This poem makes me think of another of hers that is different yet similar in some themes, French Chocolates. I feel lucky to live in the same county where she lives so have seen her read a number of times.

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    • Lucky you to experience Ellen reading; she is such a genuine human being. And yes, French Chocolates bears some resemblance, more of her clarity and honesty. Thank you for your response.

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