We Look with Uncertainty – Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

We Look With Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a hallmark of these times as we look to a softer, more permeable aliveness beyond our old ways of being. And something new is being born in us / if we but let it. Yes, this is our opportunity, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to the beauty of existence. In this vulnerability, we can learn to love, to be alive as we have not fully done until now.

Part of my new normal is a desire to reach out to others more than ever.

This is a time for poetry, poems which bring comfort and which challenge, both of which are called for in these ‘interesting’ times.

To that end, I will post a new poem each week, indefinitely.

It has always been difficult to choose a single poem each month anyway given the infinite number that exist from which to choose.

There are many new offerings related to this pandemic but it is the many written well before this time that surprise and energize me with their prescient voices.

In this strange new world in which we are now living, we are being called upon to do many things, primarily to think and behave differently.

It is my hope that even one of these remarkable poems will speak to you, hear you, guide you as we go forward into this uncertain future.

Perhaps the World Ends Here – Joy Harjo

 The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Perhaps the World Ends Here 

This title may seem apocalyptic given the current state of world affairs but this poem was published in 1994 (since June 2019, Harjo has been the first native American U.S. poet laureate). This one has been on my mind even before the virus erupted, for its touching and universal imagery of the beauty of humanity.

No matter what, we must eat to live. Who can argue with this? And to say The world begins at a kitchen table seems a reasonable association to make, does it not? Since time out of mind, The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. Can you picture your own first family kitchen table? Mine was scuffed pine, painted turquoise, my mother’s favourite colour. What foods nourished you there?

Harjo recalls the many events that take place around such a table, joys and sorrows, births and deaths, prayers of thanks. We nurture our children here; we dream and gossip over coffee; it provides shelter from rain and sun; we hide and celebrate here. In other words, life goes on in all its mundane and essential forms. 

So it has been since creation, and it will go on. It is going on right now in kitchens all over the world as we struggle to understand what is happening around us, as we slow down and retreat from the chaos that life has become for many of us. So sit at your kitchen table today and recall all that it has witnessed and know that should the world end here, we will be laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

May you be safe. May you be well.

Shoulders by Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

Naomi Shihab Nye

I have loved this poem ever since discovering it many years ago. The visual imagery is so precise and simple and at the same time profound.

A man is carrying a child, the world’s most sensitive cargo. Right there do you not stop and envision such a scene, one you have doubtless seen many times in many venues? FRAGILE, / HANDLE WITH CARE. I have certainly felt that, though without articulating the thought. And further, what if the sleeping child were your own self, if you were to treat yourself with such gentle care?

Can you hear the hum of a boy’s dream / deep inside him? What melodic or chaotic sound would that make? What would it be like to hear such a dream? If you have ever held a sleeping child, I am sure you have heard it.

Then we come to the essence: her declaration that in order to live in this world, we must be willing to treat each other with such care and respect, such deep love. Otherwise, the roads we must cross will only ever be endlessly wide; we will always come too near to a rain-blinded driver.

Are you willing to do what this father is doing, to let the road be narrow and safe, the rain to stop? Let us imagine how different the world would be if we were each handled with care.

Instructions for living a life by Mary Oliver

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I’m not sure if this is considered a poem or simply a quote but it has always been one of my favourites. Today is the first anniversary of Mary Oliver’s death. She left us with so many exquisite poems and this one seems, to me, to capture so well the essence of how she lived and what she wrote.

So here is a small tribute to her based on this poem.

Pay Attention. How else will you know what is going on around you?

You must be present to life each day as it is, notice it, observe, especially

the smallest details – this grasshopper, the ocean’s shine, the green

fists of the peonies, the daily presentations. Let us not become blasé about

this remarkable life.

Be astonished. We can become unimpressed with what we have seen

and experienced many times, becoming indifferent to both the beauties

and the horrors the world shows us over and over. It is only right, she tells

us, to be amazed and impressed by everything, especially (again) the small

details. To be filled with awe, lost for words.

Tell about it. For a poet like herself, Oliver knew how to tell us what she

saw, how to put words to what might seem indescribable. Yet I think she

meant not only that we should write poetry but that we should speak of all

that is remarkable about this world, to share the wonders we see and hear

with others as she so generously did with us.

Mary Oliver said all that and so much more in 7 words.

Are you not astonished?

With Intention by Janice Falls

And what will you do

with this unspent year,

these 365 never-before days

unspooling from the wheel as it turns,

neither stopping nor hurrying

despite your self-driven pace?

Will you greet each one

with heart wide open,

seeing all the beauty of this world

as well as its infinite sadness,

the madness and grief woven into

the achingly exquisite texture of a day?

Will you pause…

in your haste for each busy day to be done

for the next special event to arrive,

so that you might taste any moment now

be it bitter, fresh, rich or bland

and let it roll across your tongue

so that you truly know it?

Each new day will never again be here.

Greet it without clinging or aversion

or worse without noticing,

as intimate and near to you as your breath.

Unwrap each day as the gift it is;

be surprised with delight or with disappointment

but do not look away too long

for this one will not come to you again.

I wrote this poem some years ago after being asked if I knew of any poems for the new year. Though there are several, I didn’t know any at the time so I put pen to paper to see what would come and here you have it.

I think, as I read it now, that I was writing what I needed to hear, to slow down, to pay attention, to be more present to each moment. It felt important to speak not only of the beauty of this world but of the sorrow, the delight and the disappointment – life as it is.

As we enter not only a new year but a new decade of possibilities, may you treasure each day as it comes, each new day that will never again be here.

Don’t Hesitate by Mary Oliver

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
I was taken with this short prose poem by Mary Oliver, one I had not met before until my friend Laura shared it. Now I want to share it with you.
It is true, in my experience, that joy is often sudden and unexpected, fleeting even. And that too often we let it slip away or hesitate to accept its sweetness, so I love this simple advice:  don’t hesitate. Give in to it. Give in to joy – is that not a radical thought in dark times, something to take to heart?
As she says, we often lack wisdom and kindness and much in this world has been and will be destroyed for which we cannot atone. Still, life has some possibility left.  Such wise advice that joy may be life’s way of fighting back against all the sorrow – that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. Because sometimes, things do happen that cannot be bought or won or even earned.
She reminds us that whatever it is, most likely you will notice it in the instant when love begins. And not, I would add, even necessarily a new love, just those moments when love raises its head and begins again, and again.

Her final lines tell it like it is: Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.  This is profound wisdom – there is an abundance of joy in the world, joy enough to feed us all if we allow and share it. We must not horde joy for fear there will only be crumbs. Don’t hesitate to embrace each moment of possibility. Give in to it every chance you get!

And one more quote from a poem I think you will appreciate: The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, / dies young. From Morning Poem by Anne Sexton (thanks Lisa for the reminder).

  

Praise What Comes by Jeanne Lohmann

Surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise
talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps
you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,
finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another
ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?
This poem, in itself surprising as unplanned kisses, asks us to praise those things that come into our life unbidden – all you haven’t deserved, oh my, could we even begin to catalogue that! Your body’s immoderate good health, regardless of its present state, quiet intervals though they may be rare for you, books, always books – they are definitely my food and my hunger, the coming of night, walking at the end of day. All these and more you can list endlessly for yourself.
Praising these for practice – the easy stuff, the things we love and want to remember, to celebrate – a practice so that you might arrive at the place of praising grief and the wrongs you never intended, the inevitable part of life that comes along with joy, the other side of the coin. This we must give thanks for also.
I love her questions (to which there may be no answers). Yes, I have loved; no, I haven’t finished my task in the world – I’m only beginning to understand what it may be; I have learned my own name for the God of my understanding. And yes, I believe I have caught the smallest glimpse of the holy at those intersections, the boundaries where one life began and another ended.
All of this is worthy of praise, the ragged edges of pain and the talk with just about anyone. I hope this is true for you too, that you will always sing the praises for what comes into your life.

Some October by Barbara Crooker

Some October, when the leaves turn gold, ask
me if I’ve done enough to deserve this life
I’ve been given. A pile of sorrows, yes, but joy
enough to unbalance the equation.

When the sky turns blue as the robes of heaven,
ask me if I’ve made a difference.
The road winds through the copper-colored woods;
no one sees around the bend.

Today, the wind poured out of Canada,
a river in flood, bringing down the brilliant leaves,
broken sticks and twigs, deserted nests.
Go where the current takes you.

Some twilight, when the clouds stream in from the west
like the breath of God, ask me again.

Some October

Well, it’s October and the leaves are turning gloriously gold. And how would you answer if you were asked if I’ve done enough to deserve this life / I’ve been given. Have I done enough? Will I ever have done enough? And is it enough to deserve this life just because it has been given; not because of what I do but who I am?

Sorrows and joy, wonder and grief, Mark Nepo and, still the scales balance, Jane Hirshfield. Joy enough to unbalance the equation. This has been my experience though it took me half my lifetime to realize it.

Ask me if I’ve made a difference. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately – days when I fear I have not; days when I know I have, as we all have  whether for better or not, but a real difference simply by our presence here on this earth. And as the poet says, no one sees around the bend. Who knows how your life has touched another in ways you may never come to understand?

The wind blows, stripping leaves, twigs, nests – unstoppable, beyond our control. Go where the current takes you she advises. Life will take us places we cannot determine despite our insistence on trying to steer the ship. Yet we can go with the current, not passively but by choice, with clear intent.

The final ask me again makes me realize that I am as deserving of this life I have been given as you are, as we each are. You have only to look at the clouds, the blue sky, the copper-colored woods to understand this, to know this is the life you have been given.

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Language by Hannah Stephenson

If you stand at the edge of the forest
and stare into it
every tree at the edge will blow a little extra
oxygen toward you

It has been proven
Leaves have admitted it

The pines I have known
have been especially candid

One said
that all breath in this world
is roped together

that breathing is
the most ancient language

Ancient Language

I’ve chosen this poem from the anthology Poetry of Presence for two reasons. First is its simple elegance of imagery to convey what the poet imagines breath to be. I loved the notion that trees at the edge of the forest will will blow a little extra / oxygen toward you. Have you noticed that about trees? The poet even says Leaves have admitted it, thereby proving this is true.

What strikes me especially is the idea that all breath in this world / is roped together, an image of that interconnection of our being which we know about but forget. And finally, that breathing is / the most ancient language, the first sound before words. That just feels so true to me.

The second reason is that the editors of this anthology later invited people to write a poem inspired by one we had read. This is my response and it is included in the online anthology, Beginning Again.

BreathTaking

The sacred language of the breath

has no words:

a speechless entry

into the body, a tidal connection

with all that is,

the language we were born into,

the last silent word at our death.

 

It is the poetry of call and response:

inhaling news of the world,

exhaling delight and despair,

inhaling stories of life and death,

exhaling our own narratives

in sound no more than a whisper.

 

With each breath we take

life is poured into every cell,

announcing our presence

without ever saying a word.

Janice Falls

 

 

Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Small Kindnesses

I often think about small kindnesses, the simplicity and ease of them. How they are not as rare as they may seem when you stop to notice. But to put them together in a poem, now that’s a kindness in itself. My thanks to my lovely friend Margaret who first alerted me to this treasure.

The poet gives us such ordinary examples that I think we can all relate to: people pulling in their legs to let you by, saying ‘bless you’, picking up spilled lemons (or anything that rolls across the floor when dropped!). Mostly we don’t want to harm each other. It’s true, despite apparent evidence to the contrary in the news, we do not wish harm.

To say thank you for the cup of hot coffee, smile and be smiled at. To be called honey at the diner, for the driver to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far / from tribe and fire. The news, what we mainly hear, is divisive, separating us from one another, our tribe, our humanity. These gestures draw us together around the fire, small daily communities of connection.

Only these brief moments of exchange – these small kindnesses are available to us in every moment when we pay attention to our words and actions, to those of others around us. She tells us we make these fleeting temples together when we act and speak with kindness and it is their everydayness, their simplicity that draw us together, tiny prayers for living life well.

Go ahead – you first.