Joy by Stuart Kestenbaum

The asters shake from stem to flower
waiting for the monarchs to alight.

Every butterfly knows that the end
is different from the beginning

and that it is always a part
of a longer story, in which we are always

transformed. When it’s time to fly,
you know how, just the way you knew

how to breathe, just the way the air
knew to find its way into your lungs,

the way the geese know when to depart,
the way their wings know how to

speak to the wind, a partnership of feather
and glide, lifting into the blue dream.

Joy

There are so many ways to describe joy, so many ways to see it even when it may not seem present. Here is one way, without ever using the word, that this poet talks about to us about that exuberant feeling of blissful delight.

The first two lines provide a simple image easily visualized. Then it’s as if he is speaking for the butterflies who know that the ending is different from the beginning, that there is a longer story in which we are always transformed. Who does not know the classic metaphor of transformation from homely caterpillar to winged beauty?

Now the poet is speaking to the reader: When it is time to fly / you know how, just as you know how to breathe, the way geese know when to begin their migrations, each of these its own miracle. When it is time for your transformation, you just know how and when to fly, as natural as breathing.

This knowing is effortless, the way wings know how to speak to the wind, this joyful partnership, lifting us into the blue dream. Sometimes, we just know that feeling and are carried aloft, no need to even name our joy, simply to accept it.

I thank my dear friend and poetry ally, Laura, for introducing me to this poem and the poet, who also wrote Prayer for Joy.

Today’s Book of Delights by Teresa Williams

After Ross Gay

He is right; if we choose to look,
we just might believe it’s there
in the first chirp of the day and the body awakening to hear it,
in the black wings weaving through champagne leaves,
in the spark of coffee with the essay that ends
with the words, renovating love,
for gold snails on the busy sidewalk,
for the elixir of friendship in the dark shell of winter,
for each small note from the universe
and its cheerful persistence, even today,
with a new tumor on the back of my dog’s leg,
to encourage delight
in her oblivious exuberance, and let that be
what sustains me.

Today’s Book of Delights

If you haven’t yet read poet Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, you might just want to put it on your reading list. Each short essay is a record of the everyday miracles he observed in his life over the course of a year. He finds wonder and delight in simple things as well as the complex, especially in nature.

The poet Teresa Williams clearly resonates with this way of looking at the world, of finding much to praise – birdsong, our bodies, coffee, the words renovating love, snails, and my personal favourite, the elixir of friendship in the dark shell of winter, lyrical medicine for cold days.

Even with her dog’s new tumor, she is sustained by the cheerful persistence of each small note from the universe. So many ways to experience delight if we are open to notice, perhaps even to practice on occasion an oblivious exuberance to our discontents. We must risk delight says the poet Jack Gilbert, we cannot do without it.

May the small delights the universe continuously offers be yours to discover and let that be what sustains you.

Loaves and Fishes by David Whyte

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

Loaves and Fishes

The news, whatever it is, whatever the source, always seems to be the background of my days – everything from faraway wars to local traffic accidents, covid statistics to political manoeuvring, an endless fount of information. There is only so much of the details that I can take in, much less want to absorb. Forget the news, / and the radio, / and the blurred screen – especially the blurred screen, this new Zoom lifestyle that we have adopted.

This is the time of loaves and fishes. Even with a modicum of biblical training, I recognize the story of the hungry multitudes waiting to be fed. And I hear the poet using that metaphor to say that people right now are hungry, not for food and not for information, but for compassion and generosity and kindness. Perhaps that one good word can come from a poem, offering beauty and comfort in difficult times.

This poem reminds me of a wonderfully succinct line by William Carlos Williams in the same vein: It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. This is why I read poems more than newspapers, for what I find there, bread for my soul.

Abundance by Amy Schmidt

in memory of Mary Oliver

It’s impossible to be lonely

when you’re zesting an orange.

Scrape the soft rind once

and the whole room

fills with fruit.

Look around: you have

more than enough.

Always have.

You just didn’t notice

until now.

Abundance

This poem appeared in Rattle magazine in January 2019, three days after the death of Mary Oliver, beloved poet of the present moment. In this brief yet profound poem, Schmidt captures the essence of Oliver’s attention to detail.

If you have never zested an orange, I suggest you do it now so that you will immediately understand what she means that the whole room / fills with fruit. Not just the scent of orange but the feel and taste and look of orange, its very presence in which you are not alone.

Then she invites us to realize that you have / more than enough. Not only do we have enough, we have always had enough. You just didn’t notice / until now. There is a quiet gratitude for this small gift that shows us our enough-ness in any moment.

It is true, is it not, that such a simple thing as the scent of citrus can remind us of the abundance in our lives. An abundance that has always been there, waiting for our attention, just like Mary Oliver taught in her poetry.

May the pungent or delicate scent of any fruit today bring you awake.

Dust by Dorianne Laux

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor —
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes —
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.

Dust

This is a poem I’ve been walking with, literally, for the past while, learning the lines as I walk my way through these times. And as the words became written on my heart, they gave voice to some of my own experience.

Laux’s recognition of a truth spoken to her in the night felt like a description of some of my dreams. Dreams in which I hear words that resonate, that I don’t try to ascribe to any particular source, that arise from my own experience. And hasn’t that happened to you? Half awake you know you should write down what you have heard but you can’t quite wake yourself up enough to do it. By morning it is usually gone except for an elusive sense of something important having happened.

She remembers a flavor of the words, like a fine powder, like dust, something ephemeral, difficult to hold onto, easily blown away by the breeze. It left her feeling simply rapt, aware, captivated, mindful even without understanding.

I so love how she reminds us That’s how it is sometimes, the ordinariness of it despite hearing something we know to be true. God, whoever that is to you, comes to your window and you’re just too tired to open it. Yes, that’s just how it is sometimes and yet we know we have heard something important, memorable.

Essential Gratitude by Andrea Potos

Sometimes it just stuns you
like an arrow flung from some angel’s wing.
Sometimes it hastily scribbles
a list in the air: black coffee,
thick new books,
your pillow’s cool underside,
the quirky family you married into.

It is content with so little really;
even the ink of your pen along
the watery lines of your dimestore notebook
could be a swiftly moving prayer.

Essential Gratitude

Here is a poet, new to me, who captures in so few words a brief message of appreciation. Gratitude is a quality that cannot be expressed too often and she does so without even using the word beyond the title.

Sometimes it just stuns you / like an arrow flung from some angel’s wing. This is how thankfulness can pierce us, take our breath away, the sudden realization of what we are given in any moment. Your list will likely be different but I imagine you will recognize at least one of these small but significant items – on these hot nights, turning my pillow over for the momentary coolness is truly a gift.

The point is, gratitude is content with so little really. There are so many opportunities in a day to notice and give thanks, our words becoming a swiftly moving prayer. This recognition is essential, this appreciation for the ordinary as well as the exceptional aspects of life.

When you feel the touch of an angel’s wing today may you be awakened into a renewed appreciation for the gift of being alive.

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.