Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning my Shirt by Ross Gay

No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt

This poem tickled my fancy as they say, just showed me a different way of looking at buttons and hands and shirts. Ross Gay speaks of the joy of buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt, this gift not something to be taken lightly, though of course, most of us do. How even our shirts are gendered, buttoning left to right or right to left – who ever thought that up?!

He moves in his stream of consciousness way from the car bomb slicing the air / and the people in it, to the honeybee’s / legs furred with pollen. Such disparate images of the world and yet he holds the two ends of destruction and creation, the other days / which too have / been drizzled in this / simplest of joys.

Then he speaks of untethering his buttons from his shirt which is like unbuckling / a stack of vertebrae / with delicacy – such an embodied image. And the tips of his fingers with which I will / one day close / my mother’s eyes. How seldom do we contemplate what tasks our fingers will be called to perform. The delicacy of practicing giving the raft of our hands to a spider or pushing the seed into the earth – more ways we can use these hands.

Perhaps this poem can call us to pay attention to what we are doing with our hands in this moment, at any moment of the day, the openings and closings of our lives.

Twilight by Louise Glück

All day he works at his cousin’s mill,
so when he gets home at night, he always sits at this one window,
sees one time of day, twilight.
There should be more time like this, to sit and dream.
It’s as his cousin says:
Living—living takes you away from sitting.

In the window, not the world but a squared-off landscape
representing the world. The seasons change,
each visible only a few hours a day.
Green things followed by golden things followed by whiteness—
abstractions from which come intense pleasures,
like the figs on the table.

At dusk, the sun goes down in a haze of red fire between two poplars.
It goes down late in summer—sometimes it’s hard to stay awake.

Then everything falls away.
The world for a little longer
is something to see, then only something to hear,
crickets, cicadas.
Or to smell sometimes, aroma of lemon trees, of orange trees.
Then sleep takes this away also.

But it’s easy to give things up like this, experimentally,
for a matter of hours.

I open my fingers—
I let everything go.

Visual world, language,
rustling of leaves in the night,
smell of high grass, of woodsmoke.

I let it go, then I light the candle.

Twilight

As you may have heard, last week Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for poetry, no small recognition of her work. ‘Twilight’ is the first of her poems that I heard, spoken at a poetry retreat I attended some years ago, the first in a collection called A Village Life. Something about the atmosphere she created with her words captured my imagination and has stayed with me.

Right in the first stanza she tells us in the cousin’s voice: There should be more time like this, to sit and dream. And then, Living—living takes you away from sitting. She had me right there – the incompatibility of sitting and dreaming with what we call living.

The seasons visible through a squared-off landscape / representing the world – can you not see this through a window of your own, and how it changes? Not the world but a representation of the world which is all we can ever see wherever we are.

Then everything falls away – what we see, hear, smell until sleep takes this away also, where we can give it all up for a few hours, letting it all go. This lovely Visual world, language, / rustling of leaves in the night, / smell of high grass, of woodsmoke. So evocative, dream-like yet in the present.

Finally what we each can do: I let it go, then I light the candle. Lighting a candle to this calm moment of reflection. May you make time to sit and dream in the midst of this living.

Instructions for the Journey by Pat Schneider

The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.

And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Rinse them.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.
Feel it.

Instructions for the Journey

I’ve admired Pat Schneider for awhile now and was saddened to learn of her recent death so I want to share one of her poems with you.

All poems of life instructions are naturally unique and I appreciate the simplicity of this one. Don’t grieve for the skin you have outgrown, left behind The way the world, too, sheds its skin. Though at times it feels like nothing changes, in truth, each day the world is new. There is a self you are becoming, wet, raw, unfinished, that is always waiting for you as you move forward in your life. Trust it, she is telling us.

It is easy to lose this tenderly / unfolding moment she warns us, this gentle or perhaps sudden transformation to our becoming. Look for it, listen for it, pay attention: the first green blade / after a long winter… the first clear tone / in a place where dawn is heralded by bells. These are the moments we can notice, the moments we can feel our own unfolding.

And then, if all that fails, you can stand at your kitchen sink washing your dishes – as Thich Nhat Hanh tells us ” wash the dishes to wash the dishes”, just that. Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it. Try it – leave that outgrown skin behind. Be where you are.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver

3.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

This is the third section of a longer poem you can read by clicking on the link above. Mary Oliver’s poetry has such a directness about it that I can’t help but get caught by it, carried along by her words. The way she suggests that since you are already in this world, why not get started immediately?

She invites us to belong to this world, to admire, to weep, to write music or poems about it. She offers blessings to the senses we usually take for granted. And tells us we could live a long life. Or not, life and death being unpredictable.

Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going? How can we not be surprised out of complacency by such questions? She reminds us of the poet Keats who died at 23 of tuberculosis, his life’s work and love unfulfilled, thinking he had forever to do all he wanted.

Let me be urgent as a knife Oliver says here and in ways she does throughout her poetry: pay attention to the world, be here, don’t wait. It never hurts to be reminded that each day is important and won’t be repeated despite our groundhog sense of these days now. Perhaps this poem may be a prod for you today.

What Else by Carolyn Locke

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,

let drop their ponderous fruit,

the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,

the way even the late-blooming aster

succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.

Still, on this morning, the hollowness

of the season startles, filling

the rooms of your house, filling the world

with impossible light, improbable hope.

And so, what else can you do

but let yourself be broken

and emptied? What else is there

but waiting in the autumn sun?

What Else

Yesterday was autumn equinox, when the hours of light are equal to those of darkness marking the advent of this ripening season for us.

Locke tells us the particular ways that this season announces itself – the trees dropping their leaves, their fruit, the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log, how the aster is felled by the frost – this is not a new story she reminds us, this is how the wheel of the year turns time out of mind.

It’s true how the air has a different feel, not just temperature, but a sense of emptying out while at the same time filling the world / with impossible light, improbable hope. The soft light of autumn has a luminous quality not found in other seasons which also holds for me the seemingly-unlikely promise of hope that life continues even in the dying of the year.

And so, what else can you do / but let yourself be broken / and emptied? I love questions like this that can scarcely be refused. Can we allow the endings of the season to open us to new possibilities? And now we are waiting in the autumn sun, waiting for what may unfold next with that shawl of warmth against our necks.

What else is there but to be in the moment, alive and aware of all that is transforming around us. What else? What else is there?

I’m including a link to this poem, a lovely tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg https://www.rattle.com/in-the-steps-of-rbg-by-rosemerry-wahtola-trommer/

And Now It’s September, by Barbara Crooker

and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.

And Now It’s September

No doubt about the season, just as Crooker describes. I picked the last tomatoes yesterday after the frost warning and contemplated cucumbers just to see their rumpled and rusty leaves, such a gorgeous phrase.

My heart springs open to see the fall flowers, especially zinnias with their extravagant colours, all those flashy spikes waving / in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes. The magnificent music of summer’s bounty and the tall grasses haloed in the last light, a sight that always makes me pause in wonder.

Can’t you just feel the sun’s warmth reading her words I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck / and arms. And the black leaves of the blackbirds gathering in trees before leaving us wingless creatures to face the colder weather.

It is the final line that captures the essence of this time of year for me: This is autumn’s great Departure Gate. Patiently waiting in line with our boarding passes – does anyone know where we are going? Regardless, the important thing is to take in this glorious, colour-filled season while we have it, so enjoy!

How Joy Works by Jan Richardson

You could not stop it

if you tried—how this blessing

begins to sing

every time it sees

your face, how it turns itself

in wonder

merely at the mention

of your name. It is simply

how joy works, going out to you

when you least expect, running up to meet you

when you had not thought

to ask.

How Joy Works

Such simple words, are they not? But the feelings they evoke are complex. With barely a mention of the word, Richardson allows us to feel, or perhaps I should say, allows me to feel joy in my being.

You could not stop it / if you tried – who would want to stop joy from happening? She calls joy a blessing that begins to sing / every time it sees your face. You know that effervescent feeling that you get sometimes with certain beings or places you love – that is what she is telling us joy feels on seeing our own dear face. Notice she is telling us that it is joy that feels joy! O wonder!

The mention of your name, yes, yours, causes joy to turn in wonder. This is how it works, going out to you / when you least expect. The best kind of happiness – unexpected, unplanned, embodied. It is running up to meet you / when you had not thought / to ask. Rarely do I think to ask for joy and yet, there it is, a gift somewhere in each day, unasked for.

These days it can be difficult to see through the haze of bad news, of this uncertain global time, to find joy. Yet I believe the poet’s message is that joy will find you, will run to meet you if you keep your heart open.

Marvelous how something so intricately interrelated can be captured so precisely in this handful of words. Guess that’s just how joy works. May it find you today.

Neighbors by James Crews

Where I’m from, people still wave
to each other, and if someone doesn’t,
you might say of her, She wouldn’t
wave at you to save her life—

but you try anyway, give her a smile.
This is just one of the many ways
we take care of one another, say: I see you,
I feel you, I know you are real. I wave

to Rick who picks up litter while walking
his black labs, Olive and Basil—
hauling donut boxes, cigarette packs
and countless beer cans out of the brush

beside the road. And I say hello
to Christy, who leaves almond croissants
in our mailbox and mason jars of fresh-
pressed apple cider on our side porch.

I stop to check in on my mother-in-law—
more like a second mother—who buys us
toothpaste when it’s on sale, and calls
if an unfamiliar car is parked at our house.

We are going to have to return to this
way of life, this giving without expectation,
this loving without conditions. We need
to stand eye to eye again, and keep asking—

no matter how busy—How are you,
how’s your wife, how’s your knee?, making
this talk we insist on calling small,
though kindness is what keeps us alive.

Neighbors

As I pass my neighbors in the street on the way to the post office or to get some groceries, I marvel how it is that we want to acknowledge one another – sometimes a conversation, sometimes hello and a wave, sometimes just a smiling nod. As Crews says, This is just one of the many ways / we take care of one another. So necessary, this simple way of taking care, of saying ‘I know you are real’.

We all have or know of a Rick, a Christy, our mothers-in-law (yes, especially those much maligned beings) with their small and large kindnesses. This is the way of life we must return to, this giving without expectation, this loving without conditions. So simple and so important, this human interconnectedness.

We must keep asking the how-are-yous, making / this talk we insist on calling small – just love that, the talk we call small which may just be the most meaningful part of someone’s day. Because kindness is what keeps us alive no matter how insignificant it may appear on the surface.

Can’t help but be drawn to the poems that encourage kindness, those simple forms of human communication that are sometimes forgotten. So say hello to your neighbors and be glad for the small talk they offer you.

By the way, how’s your knee?

Listen by Barbara Crooker

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Listen

I want to tell you something, so listen, Crooker tells us. This morning / is bright after all the steady rain – how true is that after so many downpours, the flowers open mouthed or bedraggled but nourished.

Wake up, open your eyes she admonishes us, pay attention to all the possibilities ahead, what is unwritten, unseen, yet to be experienced. The vibrating small insects, especially August’s crickets, tiny violins of longing and desire, singing us songs, singing us into song.

I can’t tell you what prayer is reminds me of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day which also ponders how we open our hearts. But I can take the breath of the meadow into my mouth, releasing it for the leaves’ green need. Is that not accessible prayer and beauty enough?

She wants to tell us that our lives are a blue coal, a slice of orange, cut hay, the cardinal’s red song – sight, taste, smell, sound, all of our senses alive when we awake and feel deeply.

Finally she paints us the picture of how the moon waxes into flower, a showy peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic before blossoming again. And again each month, a continuous prayer of thanks for all that is.

Listen. The world has much to tell us.

Next Time by Joyce Sutphen

I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,

I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.

Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.

Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,

and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.

Next Time

Ah yes, next time. I think by now I’m pretty clear there will be no next time; there is only this lifetime, this moment. But imagining all the things I might do and be if I lived my life again can point me toward how I live right now. I love how the poet creates this turn around for us that clearly shows us this time, not next time.

I often wish I was more familiar with naming birds, flowers, trees but I can be content with just having their beauty in my days unnamed, just as I can enjoy music without knowing the artist or the lyrics.

Next time I won’t waste my heart / on anger. Now there is something to aspire to remembering, not being righteous, rather to / concentrate on giving myself away. I think that may be the most important line in this poem. If we cannot give our whole selves away in this life, then when??

Next time, no, this time, I tell people that I love them, often and sincerely. And of course I continue to give them poems, chosen for that person or just because you might be touched by them. I do keep in touch with friends because what could be more important, more alive?

I may not get to Istanbul but it is equally important and necessary to me to meet them in the local coffee shop (distancing notwithstanding), to give myself away and receive the generous gifts of others. No need to wait for the next time.