Don’t Expect Applause by Ellen Bass

And yet, wouldn’t it be welcome
at the end of each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in a church basement would do.
…Just a short earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and, one way or the other,
made it through the day.

You soaped up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up
while you stood there because
everyone’s so down on smoke these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son’s in jail.
Your daughter’s stopped eating.
And your husband’s still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say
Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren’t good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn’t say.
Even if you don’t deserve it.

Don’t Expect Applause

Ellen Bass has a knack for translating those random thoughts that pass through our mind from time to time, and putting words to them in such a way as to help it all make some sense, as well as with gentle humor. I must say there are days when any sign of appreciation for the endless rounds of thankless tasks would be a happy surprise. And the idea of hands clapping, especially at the end of an ordinary day, would be welcome.

From that first act of the morning, whether it be simply standing up and moving slowly, or, leaping into race day mode, each one is noteworthy, though it may not earn you applause. All the possibilities of a day, from the dramatic to the mundane, are made for appreciation though you may not receive it. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps the applause needs to come from ourselves.

Even if you weren’t good, because who gets through the day without some small thing to regret, something to apologize for saying or doing. Even if you don’t deserve it, because maybe, being human, you really do deserve it. A round of applause for yourself then would not be amiss, would you agree?

the first quiet of the morning by Maya Stein

Don’t spend it on the stack of mail, the phone call,
the mounting inventory of groceries. Resist
the finished wash cycle and the dishes clamoring for clean-up.
Ignore the pileup by the front door, the mess left in the wake
of the weekend. These things carry the patience and constancy of bedrock.
Not the first quiet of the morning. It is thin and needy, hungry for your touch.
You will miss it when it goes, siphoning out the way it does, toppled
by the weight of all your noisy urgencies, those lists mortaring your day together.
This for you, this sweet and brief emptiness, this desert island, this nest nesting
your inevitable flight. Hold your wings still. Don’t go just yet.

the first quiet of the morning

As soon as I read this title, and being a fan of Maya Stein’s work, I was in. It’s that ‘first quiet’ that I feel viscerally, so ephemeral yet it fills me with joyful aliveness and a sense of belonging in this world. Her admonitions not to squander that precious time with mail (in my own case email) strike a chord. There will always be laundry and unwashed dishes, messes that require our attention. These things carry the patience and constancy of bedrock. Oh yes, they will wait for us, solid in their faithfulness.

But that early morning quiet not so; it is hungry for your touch and will not last. You will miss it when it goes – that is, if you even realize what you have missed. It slips away, overtaken by the weight of all your noisy urgencies – listen to me! me first! they call to us, all those lists mortaring your day together. This is how it goes, is it not? The next ‘to-do’ demanding your response.

Pay attention she is reminding us, this sweet and brief emptiness is there for us in that first quiet of the morning. Don’t miss this respite, this nest nesting / your inevitable flight. Inevitable, but don’t go just yet, be still, let the pleasure of this fleeting time fill you and set a course for your day. I’ve always loved those priceless moments before the daily routines begin and I’m loving this poetic reminder not to miss them. Don’t go just yet.

Skating by Kate Sorbara

Some winter nights we skated on the pond.
The milky way above, the ice its own
kind of milky mass below our blades.
Our hands and feet got cold, then colder.
Cloudy angels flew from our mouths.
Stars haloed everyone.
Sometimes we shouted and played red rover
or found an old shoe or a hockey puck
to play a cobbled game. Sometimes we circled
without a word, listening to the quiet
frosty darkness. Now and then
there was a thunderous crack from somewhere
far below and you couldn’t but quake
and wonder at the deep on either side.

Skating

I remember now, skating on a lake near where I grew up, feet numb but exhilarated to be out in the cold at night, so this poem speaks to me. It may not resonate with you, but I hope that you might at least get some of the feeling it evokes. Sorbara skillfully curates such clear images that even if you have never skated, you just might feel yourself gliding across the ice.

She sets the scene with the milky way above, the ice its own kind of milky mass below our blades. Hands and feet getting colder, while cloudy angels flew from our mouths. I delight in such images that make me wish I might have thought of them myself. I can hear the shouts of children playing red rover, calling someone over to our side, and of course, the ubiquitous pick-up hockey with no real rules, just lots of enthusiasm.

Then there are the times without words, listening to the quiet / frosty darkness. If you’ve ever heard thick ice cracking, you’ll know what she means about the thunderous crack from somewhere / far below and the heart-stopping sense that the ice might give way to the freezing waters. I’m particularly taken by her ending, how you couldn’t but quake / and wonder at the deep on either side. She offers the possibility of a depth above as well as below that hadn’t occurred to me as a child but which rings true now. Perhaps one of these winter nights you will experience some of this yourself, and if not, you will at least have this poem.

i am running into a new year Lucille Clifton

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twentysix and thirtysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

i am running into a new year

We are already into the second week of this new year, yet there is still room for another poem celebrating this fresh beginning. I wish you could hear this spoken by my dear friend Laura with such heart that you could not fail to be stirred, but since you cannot, do read it aloud yourself to get the effect.

Clifton gives her words movement by choosing to say she is running, and the old years blow back / like a wind / that i catch in my hair. Surely you can feel that sensation of wind in your hair like strong fingers like / all my old promises. Ah, the old promises we make to ourselves, to change, to do better, to be better. She knows that it will be hard to let go / of what i said to myself / about myself, those well meaning intentions or resolutions, that we rarely keep.

She speaks to the promises she made to her sixteen and twentysix and thirtysix year old self, even thirtysix – what about even sixtysix or any age you are now, all the selves we once were? She is running toward the new year and i beg what i love and / i leave to forgive me. Such a powerful incantation, to the leaving behind of old beliefs and intentions that seemed so true at the time, ready for what is new and right for her going forward. What do you need to let go of? What are you running toward in your life?

Blessing for the New Year by Kayleen Asbo

As the hours of darkness begin to slowly wane from the winter sky,
so too may the fearful places of your heart unclench their grasp on your life.
As the presence of light begins to grow with greater sureness with each passing day,
may your own courage blossom to open more brightly to truth and love.

Let this be the year that you turn off the television and silence the talk radio chatter
in order to pick up the writing pen, the paintbrush,
and watch the candle slowly burn.

May this be the year that you delight
in seeing how much joy you can extravagantly spread.
May you discover just how much beauty you can recklessly shower
upon this thirsty world.

May this be the year that you tune both the dusty piano in the corner
and the inner listening of your care-worn heart
so that both can play in harmony with the chorus of creation.

May you break the invisible yardstick of impossible expectations
and learn that just as you are,
you are enough.
May this be the year that you cease trying to march to an imagined ideal
and, instead, wrap your arms around the messy wonder your life really is,
hold it close
and do the tango.

Let this be the year you befriend your soul in its radical particularity,
not forsaking it yet again for the bland demands and cravings of the masses.
Instead, may you elope with the wildness of your own true calling,
marry your soul to its deepest longings and invite the hungry world to the
wedding feast.

As the hours of darkness begin to slowly wane from the winter sky,
so too may the fearful places of your heart unclench their grasp on your life.
As the presence of light begins to grow with greater sureness with each passing day,
may your own courage blossom to open more brightly to truth and love.


Blessing for the New Year

Each time I read this poem about the new year, I am struck by how unlike conventional resolutions it is, with its gentle invitations to allow new possibilities with the slow waning of darkness. Asbo invites us to find delight in seeing how much joy you can extravagantly spread, in discovering how much beauty you can recklessly shower / upon this thirsty world. Extravagant joy, reckless beauty - oh yes!

She invites us to tune in to the inner listening of your care-worn heart, to abandon those impossible expectations so that you can learn that just as you are, / you are enough. What would that be like? To befriend your soul in its radical particularity, to elope with the wildness of your own true calling. What do you think of this idea, that you could embrace the messy wonder your life really is?

I think my favourite invitation is to marry your soul to its deepest longings and invite the hungry world to the / wedding feast. Now that would be something to celebrate, not just for you, but for this hungry, thirsty world. If you knew what your deepest longings are, how would this year be different? What if you are enough, just as you are?

 

Still Point by Max Reif

Leaving home

for work

each day

I hear the trees

say “What’s your hurry?”

Rooted, they

don’t understand

how in my world

we have to rush

to keep in step.

I haven’t even time

to stop and tell them

how on weekends, too,

schedules wait

like nets.

It’s only on a sick day

when I have to venture out

to pick up medicine

that I understand the trees,

there in all their fullness

in a world unpatterned

full of moments,

full of spaces,

every space

a choice.

This day

has not

been turned yet

on the lathe

this day

lies open, light

and shadow. Breath

fills the body easily.

I step

into a world

waiting like

a quiet lover.

Still Point

I imagine I was drawn to this poem, in part, because I think of this time of year as a still point, a time for reflection. To hear the trees say “What’s your hurry?” certainly would give pause – really, what is my hurry? He explains how in my world / we have to rush / to keep in step, not being rooted as the trees are. Perhaps this is familiar to you also, how schedules wait / like nets, how they constrain and rush us.

It seems to take a sick day for us to slow down, to understand the trees, to recognize that the world is full of moments, / full of spaces, / every space / a choice. Spaciousness, choice – how easy it is to lose sight of these possibilities. Love his image that the day / has not / been turned yet / on the lathe, unformed, even if your schedule, your plans say otherwise.

This day, he tells us, lies open, light / and shadow, room to breathe easily. In a day such as this, he moves into a world / waiting like / a quiet lover. Can you feel the edges receding, your breath deepening, the excitement of the unknown, if only for a moment. After all, what’s your hurry?

Blessing for the Longest Night by Jan Richardson

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Blessing for the Longest Night

Tonight, this December 21st, will be the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. And Jan Richardson who has written many blessing-poems, seems to have captured the essence of this special time. After so many months of endarkenment, as my friend calls it, the sun and earth in their timeless dance will allow the light to gradually return, a reason to celebrate, even as we let go of this special time of drawing inward.

What is this blessing, this grace she speaks of, that has been gathering itself, that has practiced walking in the dark as we have each walked as the moon has waned? She tells us this blessing will / reach you / even if you / have not enough / light to read it. You will know its arrival by your release / of the breath / you have held / so long, a thinning of the darkness that has seemed endless.

Yet she is quick to point out, this does not mean / to take the night away, but rather to accompany you like a friend as you travel through the dark. She invites us to reach out to take the hand of this blessing, this gift that is offered on this night, for this is the night / when you can trust / that any direction / you go, / you will be walking / toward the dawn. May you move toward the light as it returns, carrying your own light inside.

Yes by Brian Doyle


I was on a gleaming elevator in a vast hotel in a huge city
The other day when a man got on with his daughter about
Age four. I asked her what floor they wanted and she said
Seven million. I reached up as high as I could and pressed
An imaginary button and she laughed and some little door
Opened in all three of us, a wordless yes, and we started to
Talk about the elevator’s voice, which sounded like a lady
From Ireland or Scotland, and how the buttons were twice
As big as any giant’s fingers, and how older gents like me
Remembered buildings without thirteenth floors, isn’t that
Funny, that an ancient supersition would still be reflected
In modern buildings? By now the girl was dancing and her
Dad and I were grinning at her ebullience but then the lady
Spoke their floor and the door opened. The girl leapt away,
But the dad hesitated a second and said quietly hey thanks,
And I knew just what he meant – something like thanks for
Being four years old for a minute. We have those moments
When we are all the same age, from the same country, with
The same language on our teeth, and it never lasts too long,
But it always feels weirdly familiar, doesn’t it? Like we are
Home again for a moment, with family we hardly get to see.

Yes

Here’s a first for Heart Poems: a prose poem which like all good poems conveys meaning in few words with its own music. It’s a simple enough story, one you may have experienced yourself or something similar. You’ve heard of ‘elevator speeches’, those concise ways of telling someone what it is you do for your living. This, though, I find so much more interesting and the title draws me in with its affirmative energy.

Focused on a brief moment in time, the poet shares with us the magic of a child who spontaneously responds seven million when asked what floor she wants, that simple, polite elevator question. And with her laughter, some little door / opened in all three of us, a connection that would likely have been missed without her. With this wordless yes, a free ranging conversation begins about the elevator’s voice, the buttons twice as big as any giant’s fingers, and the superstition of not naming the thirteenth floor.

The poet and the father share smiles at the little girl’s ebullience as she leaps off at their floor. When the father quietly says thanks, the poet understood, something like thanks for / being four years old for a minute. Those moments when age and country and language are irrelevant, just shared, momentary joy. And yet, there is a familiarity, like we are / home again for a moment, home with people we are connected to as if they were family. May you encounter such a yes somewhere in your days to bring you home.

Inside Out by Laura Grace Weldon

Only by snapping open scarlet runner bean pods

do we see they are lined with fuzz, shaped

to each vividly hued bean

like a viola case to its instrument.

Only by slicing open a trout

are its bones revealed, lined up like pews

facing the back of a moving church,

its scripture stories of what came before.

We see stars only in the darkness,

feed a flame only by burning,

fuel our bodies only with what lived.

You’d think we’d see a pattern,

yet are surprised when loss

tilts our world, lifestream

into waterfall. We’re told grief

ebbs, when all we want to do

is bring sorrow’s fullness

out in the sun’s cleansing light.

Lay it on the rocks.

Let it air.

Inside Out

This poem is filled with unique images, ways of saying things differently that help us understand grief by turning things inside out, a reversal of what our eyes usually see. She begins by opening a scarlet runner bean pod, something you may have done yourself, but have you ever thought of it like a viola case to its instrument? Or opening a trout to reveal its bones lined up like pews / facing the back of a moving church? Naming the bones as scripture stories of what came before. Remarkable, yes?

She’s asking us to see patterns in our lives, stars in the darkness, flames burning, how we fuel our bodies only with what lived. Yet despite these constancies, we are surprised / when loss tilts our world. If you have experienced such a loss, you will recognize how your world shifts, your lifestream turns into waterfall, that unstoppable turning of everything inside out, refusing to make a pattern we can recognize and accept.

She offers the conventional wisdom that grief will ebb, which it likely will, albeit in an impossibly long time, but she believes what we really want to do is to bring sorrow’s fullness / out in the sun’s cleansing light. Not to shut it away where it cannot be seen or heard, but to Lay it on the rocks. Let it air. By turning it inside out, we can expose sorrow’s fullness to the sunlight’s comfort, give it a place in our world that allows it to be just as it is.

And here is a treat I recommend for you: Kim Rosen speaking poems of loss with Jamie Sieber on her cello, together creating a magical experience. https://jamisieber.com/feast-of-losses

Poem for my Birthday by Barbara Crooker

It's November, light of amber, plum clouded sunsets,
the remaining leaves somber, russets and umber,
the last bits of color before winter's muslin
dropcloths are laid down.
 
God of the ginkgo trees, whose little lemon fans
have fallen, God of the red oaks, still hanging
on, hear my birthday prayer:
 
Send me a heart of gratitude for this long afternoon
of goldenrod light falling across my typewriter
and a sky so blue I want to bite it like an apple.
 
Let me walk in deep leaves on the way to dinner,
scuffling and kicking my Buster Brown shoes
like a nine-year-old girl.
 
Let the blackboard of the sky be full of stars,
writing all the old stories.  When I go back to work,
let me write one good thing that is true.
 
This afternoon, two crows were arguing off
in the distance; they both want the last word.
So do I.


Poem for my Birthday

I don't think I've ever posted two poems by the same poet back-to-back before, but this one came to my notice the same day last week that I sent out Sometimes I am Startled Out of Myself and I was taken again by her voice. Perhaps if you have a November birthday, light of amber, plum clouded sunsets, then this can be a gift to you, before winter's muslin / dropcloths are laid down - such gorgeous imagery.

She invokes the gods of the gingko and oak trees to hear her birthday prayers, asking for a heart of gratitude, the goldenrod light, and a sky so blue I want to bite it like an apple. She wants to walk in the fallen leaves kicking my Buster Brown shoes / like a nine-year-old girl - have you ever had that childhood flashback that can arrive with a changing season?

Then we are looking up at the blackboard of the sky on which are written all the old stories in constellations of stars - perhaps you know some of them, a whole library of stories. She asks that when she sits back down at her typewriter, that she be able to write one good thing that is true. That feels like enough for me, not three magic wishes, but one good, true thing.

It seems at this time of year, the crows are always arguing in their loud raucous voices. These two she hears both want the last word, but it is the poet who, fittingly, gets it.