I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem –Jamie Gil de Biedma
Before I “tell” anything here, let me first “ask” some things. How are you holding up? How are those you care for and love? In the grip of this world epidemic and health crisis, what are you doing to support yourself?
Now, let me tell a story which I believe has resonance with what we’re facing.
Years ago, as a young adult, I had a conversation with my mother that drew a response I didn’t recognize. I remember the conversation had to do with my acknowledging a difficult time she was going through.
I remember how fast her tears came and how deep the emotions. This was not typical.
My mother was the kind of person who looked out for others. In addition to all she did for friends and family, for thirty-plus years, she worked as a claims manager for the Social Security Administration. I don’t think she missed a single day of work in all those years. The people she served routinely brought her little homemade thank-you gifts, like plants, cookies, and the like.
Our conversation that day touched something deep inside her, provoking a rare kind of self-empathy, the kind she usually reserved for others. For anyone who knows me and has heard me speak or teach, you know I love language in general and poetry in particular. My mother, with her knowledge of Latin and love of verse, played an outsized role in my own eventual love of language and poetry. I would later call it, Adult Onset Poetry Syndrome!
Thinking back, I believe my Mom loved poetry, and the stories told because it allowed her to experience her own healing attention, insight, and empathy. She could step into the poems she loved and feel more fully alive. My intuition tells me that in that conversation we had that day, my mother was able to turn her story into something worthy of attention. And yes, worthy of her self-empathy when she was asked direct questions about the difficulties in her life. Just like I knew the look on her face when she mentioned the name of her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. (A poet I love as well.)
Of course, I never connected these dots until years later. And no, we never talked about these things in this way. (She died long before my insights.) But in addition to my gut sense now, there is direct forensic evidence dwelling deep in my own heart and inherited DNA. I also use poetry to help feel and experience life more fully. I use poetry to grow my empathy for others and myself. I use poetry to help when dark interior visions and self-loathing take hold inside me. And, of course, I use poetry to help feel more joy and beauty and gratitude even in the most challenging times, like we are currently experiencing.
I use poetry to invite or to simply allow my heart to break wide open. It can be scary and painful and yet also profoundly and paradoxically healing at the same time. The heart that cannot break cannot feel.
Perhaps like my mother, you are a little tough on yourself. Maybe you always defer your own needs. Perhaps, you find your attitudinal resilience has taken a hit, and need to take steps to bolster your hurting heart. Maybe like me, you need all the different kinds of “remembering” that poetry provides, and you need it again and again.
The poet Seamus Heaney put it so simply and elegantly when he said, “I rhyme, / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
You can do this for yourself? The right language can set your darkness to light as well.
The poet Mary Oliver advises, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” Can you feel the deep permission there? That permission is yours. Take it and run. Take it and let your heart break so you can heal and feel more love.
Regarding love, Rumi said, “There are love dogs / no one knows the names of / give your life / to be one of them.
Also, please consider this African poetic saying.
“Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.”
Let these words in under the radar screen of your strategic mind and into your heart. There is deep solace in poetry, the kind we need, especially in these times.
Mary Oliver also said, “I would it were not so, but so it is. / Who ever made music of a mild day?”
And yes! Of course, we wish none of what we are going through were so.
What can we do? We can go beyond “sheltering in place” to also “sheltering in poetry.” And don’t wait. You can give poetry to yourself and others right now. You can engage others in telling their own poetic stories. And, of course, tell yours as well.
I lost my mother to cancer in 1987, not that many years after the conversation I described. I was living far away on the west coast by then. Once diagnosed, my Mom declined so fast that I was not able to make it home before she died. I was flying back on a redeye flight when she passed. I’ve always said that we crossed paths somewhere in the stars that night, maybe over Virginia, where she was born. The very last phone conversation I had with her, heavily sedated and in pain, I remember her struggling to say my name, but she did say my name. I can still hear her voice.
Soon after my mother’s death, I discovered poetry in a new and more profound way. It came alongside the miracle of a new romantic love that grows and thrives to this day as well. (Our different passions often work this way.)
Since then, I have dedicated much of my life to writing, speaking about, and sharing poetry with others. By now, I have presented to thousands. Each time, each beloved poem spoken is as fresh and new and exciting as ever. I told two dear friends recently that reciting memorized verses to people who love poetry is as much fun as a person can have with their clothes on. (Yes, a cliche I know.)
The thing we must do is delve deeper into the many challenges presented to us now with skill and equanimity. We must act with grace and centeredness to face our problems and to somehow convert their fierce difficulties into opportunities to learn, grow, and change the world in helpful ways. There will be no shortage of tragic events and stories. Our paradoxical duty and task will be to allow our own hearts to break wide open with healing attention, empathy, and love. In this way, we will be far more durable and more resilient and able to better serve ourselves and others when necessary.
Poems will help.
Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash