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.


I Tell You by Susan Glassmeyer

I could not predict the fullness
of the day. How it was enough
to stand alone without help
in the green yard at dawn.

How two geese would spin out
of the ochre sun opening my spine,
curling my head up to the sky
in an arc I took for granted.

And the lilac bush by the red
brick wall flooding the air
with its purple weight of beauty?
How it made my body swoon,

brought my arms to reach for it
without even thinking.

*
In class today a Dutch woman split
in two by a stroke – one branch
of her body a petrified silence,
walked leaning on her husband

to the treatment table while we
the unimpaired looked on with envy.
How he dignified her wobble,
beheld her deformation, untied her

shoe, removed the brace that stakes
her weaknesses. How he cradled
her down in his arms to the table
smoothing her hair as if they were

alone in their bed. I tell you –
his smile would have made you weep.

*
At twilight I visit my garden
where the peonies are about to burst.

Some days there will be more
flowers than the vase can hold.

I Tell You

Ever since I first read this poem, it has lingered and raised its head in moments of deep gratitude. Like Sunday morning as I sat on my deck with a coffee, my bowl of mangoes and raspberries, a gorgeous display of peonies at the back of the yard, pale pink against the dark green.

The poet describes the fullness of the day – how it was enough to stand alone without help, how she looked up to the sky in an arc I took for granted, how her arms reached for the lilacs without even thinking. All the ways our bodies move us through the day.

Then in the next stanza, in what initially seems an unrelated theme, she describes a woman split / in two by a stroke – one branch / of her body a petrified silence, supported by her husband. How this man dignified her wobble, / beheld her deformation…How he cradled her down in his arms. She illustrates his behaviour with the compelling statement his smile would have made you weep. You realize that her impairment did not compromise his love for her.

The final stanza brings us back to her garden, and me to mine, where the last line says volumes when you see the two previous ones brought together. Some days there will be more / flowers than the vase can hold. I tell you, I tell you, how can we not see our abundance, our good fortune, the fullness of the day, when we stop to consider what we already have.

May your days be filled with more flowers than the vase can hold.

In the Middle by Barbara Crooker

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

In the Middle

In the middle of a life, time often seems elusive, inadequate, never quite enough. It goes by so quickly except for those long ago days as children when summer holidays seemed forever. Now our responsibilities seem to devour more time than we care to surrender, always wishing for more.

The poet speaks of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s, that struggle for balance that we have optimistically dubbed ‘work-life balance’. She describes how the seasons flow one into the next, how our children evolve from infants to adults, our own parents gone from us, all of this, it feels, in a blink of an eye.

Each day, we must learn / again how to love she reminds us. This we must take the time to do, in the many small and endless ways we are given. Time is always ahead of us, hurrying us into the future. But then, sometimes we take off our watches, stop measuring the minutes, lie in the hammock, that quintessential icon of timelessness. And in those moments, we are suspended, tangled up / in love, running out of time.

Those are the important moments, when we pause in our mad rush toward who-knows-what, when we let time run ahead without us and just be present to who and what we love. What a gift that is, even if only for a moment.

I’ve always love the turn-around ‘so much time, so little to do’. Even when it doesn’t feel true, it makes me smile, gives me pause, time enough to be tangled up in love.

Blackbirds by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

Blackbirds

I’m always taken by a poem that seems to speak directly to my experience of the moment we are all in together. This is one of those poems.

The imagery in these first two stanzas clearly brings to mind what I have only seen videos of – a murmuration of birds moving as one. She introduces us to the sound, a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air – can’t you just hear that? Then there is the visual picture of all these blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was therethe whole flock taking a long, wide turn / as if of one body and one mind. I, too, have had that very same thought: how do they do that? A beautiful mystery.

Now she skillfully slides us into the realm of human society saying what a puny existence if we were only to live with its cruelty and fear / its apathy and exhaustion. But instead. Instead we live in this curving and soaring world where sometimes mercy and tenderness triumph, sometimes we even manage to unite and move together / toward a common good.

Is this not what we have witnessed these past two weeks in particular – the terrible cruelty and fear, followed by human beings moving together as one in this curving and soaring world to create a common good. So yes, I believe we can say to ourselves, ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

May all beings move together toward a common good.

A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

A Small Needful Fact

After all the news, the facts – truth and untruth, it takes a poet to tenderly place such horror, such outrage into a story-image that people can digest and remember and not turn away from. As you will know, Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York 6 years ago; this poem was published the following year. Many have been killed since but the latest murder of George Floyd, echoing Garner’s phrase “I can’t breathe”, sadly shows how little has changed.

What I appreciate about Gay’s approach to this almost impossible-to-talk-about subject (and impossible not to talk about), is that he speaks of the time before, of Garner’s work as a gardener for the city. The repetition of perhaps, and in all likelihood, shows that he is imagining what this man’s life may have been – a real person, like you, like me. Plants which he put gently into the earth and which most likely continue to grow and continue to do what such plants do. All the necessary, important and pleasant things they do, like making it easier / for us to breathe.

A man helping plants grow to create oxygen so that we can breathe more easily. A man whose own oxygen was taken away from him so that he could not breathe – six years ago, last week. This is such a potent image that, to me, says so much more than ‘he was killed’ or even that ‘he was murdered’. The contrast between creating plant life and taking away human life is excruciatingly painful and it is this poet’s voice which conveys all this so memorably. A small needful fact that may make it harder for us to breathe.

The Happiest Day by Linda Pastan

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

The Happiest Day

Well, it’s late May but the scent of lilacs and other flowering trees is much more than a promise. Our parents, the house/s we grew up in, our children – all this such a part of our everyday lives that we rarely stop to consider if we were happy, focusing instead on the small irritations that are like salt on melon even though they simply made the fruit taste sweeter. Now there is a memorable, sensory image – can you taste it?

The news of the day, the bottomless litany of strikes, wars, fires and now of course, covid-related stories, can keep us fully occupied. And yet, if someone could only stop the camera / and ask me: are you happy? How often do we ask ourselves that? Would you notice how the morning shone in the reflected / color of lilac? Would that not be a definition of happiness itself?

After reading this poem yesterday, I noticed a sensation, difficult to describe even to myself, that was certainly contentment, an ephemeral burst of happiness. This is how happiness is – fleeting, transitory, yet real. Would I have noticed it if not for the question? I believe it is there more often than not if I simply turn my attention toward the color of lilacs, the song of the mating cardinals, the children playing on the street.

Are you happy? May I offer you a steaming cup of coffee?

When Giving is All We Have by Alberto Rios

                                              One river gives
                                              Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

When Giving is All We Have

I first heard this poem spoken in Ireland at a gathering of lovers of poetry I attended and it has stayed with me since. I’ve long been intrigued by the inexorable twinning of giving and receiving, how one cannot exist without the other.

Rios speaks of the many elements of giving. We give because we received, we did not, we were changed, we were not, we are better for it or wounded by it. Giving has many faces with an old story we return to over and again.

When we each give what we have, blue for you, yellow for me, together we are simple green. Simple, yes. We give what we do not have, what we do have to give. Surely you know those times you have given when you thought you had nothing to offer. And together, we made / Something greater from the difference.

This is how it is every day. We give, we receive, hand to hand – mine to yours, yours to mine, really two sides of the same coin. And each time, something new is created. Try it and see if that isn’t true – simple green, like the colour of spring that surrounds us now. And isn’t it delectable.

The Word That is a Prayer by Ellery Akers

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

The Word That is a Prayer

What is the word that people all over the earth are saying with you? Did you guess it right away? I didn’t on first reading but as soon as I read Please, it caught my heart and the poem has lingered long in my mind. In any language it can hold a similar meaning – a request for attention, for assistance, a petition.

The child, the woman, the man knocking at the window though you don’t go back, though someone just prayed to you the way you pray. How many times in a day do you silently or aloud make that request no matter to what being you pray, even if you don’t believe, don’t even call it prayer.

This small weightless word that could float up to God like the feather it is, asking for whatever we want to be or not, before it falls back to earth as rain, as ice, and you walk in that weather every day. Because this is what we do with that one-word prayer, offering it up each time we hope to be heard.

I had a lovely exchange with Ellery Akers last week in which she generously offered for me to post this poem to share with you. This is one of several on her website which I encourage you to visit. https://elleryakers.com

Day Dream by A.S. J. Tessimond

One day people will touch and talk perhaps
easily,
And loving be natural as breathing and warm as
sunlight,
And people will untie themselves, as string is unknotted,
Unfold and yawn and stretch and spread their fingers,
Unfurl, uncurl like seaweed returned to the sea,
And work will be simple and swift
as a seagull flying,
And play will be casual and quiet
as a seagull settling,
And the clocks will stop, and no one will wonder
or care or notice,
And people will smile without reason,
Even in winter, even in the rain.

Day Dream

This poem was written by the British poet Tessimond in the first half of the last century and introduced to me by my dear friend John Hillman a few years ago. It has a timeless quality, sounding as relevant today, perhaps more so, than when it was written.

I love the imagery of people untying themselves as string is unknotted, unfolding, unfurling – all the language of tightly curled bodies as we perhaps find ourselves now. Uncurled, like seaweed returned to the sea, which if you have ever seen it, is so liquid and languorous and supple.

Work will be simple and swift, play will be casual and quiet. Imagine. Without struggle, just as natural and normal as breathing. And the clocks will stop because we will not need them – time will take on a new dimension.

And people will smile without reason as we do when we are at ease with ourselves, when we feel part of the larger community of this world. Even in winter, even in the rain – because weather will not define us, will not inhibit us.

And so, this is his daydream. Perhaps it may be yours also – to live more effortlessly, as I believe we long to live. Perhaps it is a dream we will embody as we move forward into our new unknown world. Regardless, it is a daydream worth dreaming.

What Issa Heard by David Budbill

Two hundred years ago Issa heard the morning birds

singing sutras to this suffering world.

I heard them too, this morning, which must mean,

since we will always have a suffering world,

we must also always have a song.

What Issa Heard

Issa was an 18th century Japanese haiku master and while this short poem doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable format of traditional haiku, for me it has the same essence, that is, a profound message in very few words.

Budbill effortlessly makes the link between the morning birds singing sutras or wisdom teachings, to the suffering world over two hundred years ago and hearing them singing today. This must mean, he says, that there will always be the music of birds since we will always have a suffering world. Such a tender message of compassion for the universal experience of suffering and one of its counterparts, the comforts of the natural world.

I take comfort in the simple acknowledgement that the world suffers and that birds continue to sing – sorrow and beauty – always one with the other, no matter how great the suffering. While this message is simple, it is far from simplistic. Rather it is truth as only poetry can tell it.

I also want to add for your pleasure another deliciously brief and succinct poem of Budbill’s which needs no added words:

Oh, this life,
the now,
this morning,

which I
can turn
into forever

by simply
loving
what is here,

is gone
by noon.