Categories
Poetry

A New Practice

As I watched the wave of COVID-19 build I felt a deep sadness growing in myself.

There would be so much suffering.

And now that wave has started to break. I have friends who’s livelihoods are threatened. I have acquaintances who are sick and fearing for their lives. I have friends of friends who’ve already lost people they loved.

And there are so many people I don’t know who are right now living their own stories of fear and loss.

But I can’t go to them. As someone with asthma I can’t even volunteer for simple things like trips to the grocery store. Or I could, but I’m choosing not to. Choosing to protect myself.

And I can feel the gap in my body. The gap between how my warm mammal body wants to respond and what I’m actually choosing to do.

Because we show up for the hurting not just to hold them, but to hold the parts of ourselves that feel their pain.

And as this wave of suffering rolls through the world I can feel that I have a choice. I can close my heart and try to protect it like I’m protecting my body. Or I can hold my heart open, even though I can’t go to them, even though I don’t know how long this will last.

This (very) short poem is a reminder to myself which choice I want to make.


A New Practice

To not be able to move
my body towards the scared,
the lonely, the grieving—
this is a new practice
in holding my heart open
longer than I know how.


Click the thumbnail below to download a larger image of the poem you can share on social media:

Categories
Poetry

Surrounded

A couple weeks ago, as the full weight of this crisis started to settle on me, I organized a meeting of a small contemplative group I’m part of. But with only an hour left before the meeting I couldn’t figure out how to open it. What words or images could possibly meet people where they’re at right now?

Then I remembered a line I’ve heard David Whyte use in various talks. It’s the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy where he says, “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.”

I felt my body relax. That was it.

We’ve all suddenly found ourselves in the middle of an uncharted wilderness.

This poem grew out of that recognition. And the further remembering that we are not separate from the wilderness around us. That there are deep, wild parts of ourselves that know how to live with danger and uncertainty.

I hope it helps you feel a little more grounded in this time of swirling uncertainty, as it did for me.


Surrounded

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

-Dante

Look how this wilderness
swept in around us—
while we slept,
while we paid the rent,
while we ordered another round.

By the time we looked up
all our paths were gone. The forest
presses in on all sides,
every direction an equal mystery
of tangle and dark.

Breathe now.

Breathe down into 
your wild body, 
into its sudden alertness, 
its burning need to keep you safe.
There are parts of you that know
how to stand still in this place,
parts of you that will know
which step to take.

My friend John featured the poem in this video essay about the pandemic.

Click the thumbnail below to download a larger image of the poem you can share on social media:

Categories
Poetry

Meanwhile

My body’s been holding a lot of anxiety lately. I search for information, get anxious, so search for more information, and the cycle continues.⁣

Last Thursday I took a break and went to a local park that has a few hundred acres of old growth forest. This poem came out of that short trip. I hope it gives you a deep breath in the midst of it all, as it did for me. 

Meanwhile

Meanwhile the world’s still doing spring
like nothing’s happening. There was sunlight
on the forest floor today, and the sounds of birds

welcoming themselves home to another place
they still belong. My fear found no corroboration
in the old growth Douglas firs, who seemed

as steady as ever. Not even the swarms
of little hemlocks clawing towards the light
echoed my alarm. They all just let me be there

with all the hornets buzzing in my chest.
Some mirrors are big enough to show you
how even the end of the world really isn’t.


Click the thumbnail below to download a larger image of the poem you can share on social media:

Shareable image of Meanwhile poem
Categories
Poetry

Nobody Knew

I wrote this little poem last year as spring announced itself in the Northwest. One of the joys of poetry is looking back and seeing how your intuition captured something that you wouldn’t have been able to articulate directly.⁣⁣⁣⁣

One thing this poem captured is the dance between two parts of life. ⁣⁣⁣⁣

There’s the self-protective part, whose job it is to make sure what’s already alive doesn’t die. That part knows how to retreat. How to hide. How to fight off danger and put up armor between you and the world.⁣⁣⁣⁣

And then there’s the part it’s protecting—the soft, whole-hearted part of you that knows how to join the world’s ongoing renewal of aliveness. It knows how to praise. How to make and recognize beauty. How to open and risk itself in the world.⁣⁣⁣⁣

And—this is what struck me today—spring doesn’t happen because the protective part gives the all-clear. It never does that. It’s always in protective mode. Spring happens when the longing of aliveness overcomes the fear of destruction. It’s a calculated risk. An act of faith.⁣⁣⁣⁣

As the cherry trees bloom again this year, they’re reminding me that both parts are good. Both are necessary. That, like the cherry trees, we can’t live perpetually in one or the other. We too have to dance with the seasons.⁣⁣


Nobody knew
the cherry trees
would bloom today.
How quietly

they must have
whispered together,
huddled in the
deepest ends

of their roots,
as winter’s death crept
down their branches.
But slowly—

as slowly as the Earth
tilts her head
back toward the Sun—
a chorus grew,

some ancient hymn
of faith, and the life
they’d been protecting
took heart and began

to rise into
scarred trunks
and broken branches
until all at once,

all over this grey
city, a million
newborn flowers
proclaimed the Spring.

Categories
Poetry

The Day Mary Oliver Died

Mary Oliver died one year ago today. I think Wild Geese might have been the first poem that spoke to my adult self. Not that my adult self knew what to do with it. But it called from just over a far horizon that was barely coming into view. It gave me something to muddle towards.

It’s hard to imagine a better compliment for a piece of art. Giving each other something to muddle towards is—at least in my experience—about the best we can do. And Mary Oliver has given me many.

When I heard she‘d died I had a visceral sensation of something huge and essential crashing down. So I started this poem that day. But it took coming back to it a few times over the past year before it felt shareable:

There are trees
in the forest near my home
that hold the world together,
their roots married
to the bones of the earth.
The little boy in me knows
they are eternal.
The man I’ve become
has seen them fallen,
their ancient trunks
softening, the borders
between themselves
and everything opening,
slowly opening.
If only she could tell us now
what it’s like to fall.
How would the sharp praise
of her breath shape
that long, slow exhale
of becoming what so
astonished her?

Categories
Invitation

I accidentally memorized 16 poems last year. Here’s how.

On a Friday evening last March I was sitting next to a stranger at dinner. We’d just started a weekend poetry retreat so we pretty quickly got to talking about our own writing practices. That’s when I heard myself say something that changed the rest of my year:

Musicians don’t play only their own music. I wonder what it would be like to write out someone else’s poetry.

The thought stuck with me through the weekend. So when I got home I tried it.

I don’t remember how I chose the first poem—Rilke’s “Knots of Our Own Making”—but one morning later that week I went to the coffee shop, pulled it up on my phone, and copied it out by hand on a piece of paper. Line for line, comma for comma.

A page from my writing practice at the local coffee shop.

Once didn’t feel like enough so the next morning I copied it again, this time working off the one I’d done the day before.

My hazy goal was just to spend time with the poem. To feel what it was like to write it. To see what I noticed when I paid a different, closer kind of attention to it.

But after eight or nine days of copying it something else happened, too. I sat down at the coffee shop and wrote out the whole thing, line for line, comma for comma, without looking at the previous day’s copy.

I’d committed it to memory.

A couple days later I started copying a different poem. Sure enough after a couple weeks I’d memorized that one, too. By the end of 2019 I’d committed 16 poems to memory without ever intending to memorize one.

[I’ll list all 16 poems at the bottom of this page in case you’re curious.]

What poems are good for

Having all these poems in memory is like walking around with my pockets full of glowing little jewels, ready to share them in case they come in handy.

And they have.

I’ve shared these poems with friends who are grappling with transition and loss. I’ve used them to help facilitate contemplative gatherings. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I’ll say one silently to myself until I drift off. I even closed my grandmother’s memorial service with one.

But memorizing the poems is really a secondary benefit. The biggest value for me has been in the practice.

It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to write one out. But poems distill wisdom and beauty into such a concentrated form that those few minutes give a more rooted and spacious context to my day. And since you spend a week or two with the same poem, it has time to ricochet around inside and find the places you most deeply connect to it.

Wanna give it a try?

And that’s why I wanted to write about this practice. One of the big questions I’ve been dancing with over the last year is:

How can I take the things that have been life-giving for me and offer them in ways that might be helpful for other people, too?

In that spirit, if this sounds like a practice you might enjoy, I invite you to give it a try. It’s so simple you almost have to stretch it to make three steps, but here it goes:

  1. Choose a poem that moves you
  2. Copy it by hand every day until you can do it from memory
  3. Then choose a different poem and repeat

I usually do it in the morning at a local coffee shop because the promise of an espresso macchiato helps me stay consistent. Do whatever works for you. (But it can’t hurt to pair it with a delicious beverage.)

Oh, and this is important. It’s okay if you don’t do it every day. I usually miss at least a day or two a week and it’s still great.

Send me a quick note and let me know if you’re gonna try it! You can leave a comment below or use the connect page here on the site if you don’t have my email address. It would be fun to hear how it goes for you.

Happy copying :)


PS, if you have any favorite poems you think would work well for this practice, leave them in the comments for me and anyone else looking for a good poem to use!

Here are the 16 poems I’ve practiced with so far, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names:

  1. No Going Back, by Wendell Berry
  2. I Dwell in Possibility, by Emily Dickinson
  3. Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden
  4. God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
  5. Caminante, by Antonio Machado
  6. The Journey, by Mary Oliver
  7. Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
  8. Dear Darkening Ground, by Rainer Maria Rilke
  9. Knots of Our Own Making, by Rainer Maria Rilke
  10. Widening Circles, by Rainer Maria Rilke
  11. The Guest House, by Rumi
  12. Lost, by David Wagoner
  13. Love After Love, by Derek Walcott
  14. Desire, by Alice Walker
  15. Finisterre, by David Whyte
  16. Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte

I could still recite some of them for you right now. Others I’d need to brush up a little before I could get them just right. But all of them feel like part of the wisdom repertoire I now get to carry into my life and relationships.

Categories
Poetry

A Winter Poem

On Saturday some friends and I marked the winter solstice together. We met just before sunset in a local forest, with the darkening waters of the Salish Sea just visible through the trees.

Winter was the first season I ever felt in my soul. Or at least the first one I was aware of feeling.

And since then the seasons have become a deepening source of wisdom and consolation in my life. They’re an inheritance we all share. Something in you knows how to winter, just like the deer and the eagles and the bigleaf maples know.

This poem speaks to my soul-level experience of winter.

I started it a few weeks ago and finished a workable draft just in time to share it for the solstice. But part of me has been writing it for a long time.

Now the leaves have fallen.
The trees are pulling their aliveness
back in from their branches,
down into their fortress trunks
and the dark, subterranean closeness
of their roots.

Every year they let go of
exactly what everyone says
is most beautiful about them
to save their own lives.

The time will come
when you, too, have to drop
all the ways you’ve made yourself
worth loving,
and finally learn how
to sit quietly
right in the center
of your own small life.

Only there can you cry
the tears your life depends on,
as everything you thought you needed
rots into soil.
Only there will you find
the tiny seed
that holds the whole mystery
of you, and cradle it
in the warmth of your body
until the spring.

Categories
Poetry

Let the Wind Dance You

This little poem is about a shivering little tree near the top of a mountain (see a video of the actual tree below). But it’s also about giving yourself a break.

There were taller trees lower down the mountain that swayed more elegantly in the wind. And even lower were old growth Douglas firs—timeless giants rising out of rich forest soil.

Imagine teaching that little tree that it wouldn’t be worthy of love until it was more like those other, bigger trees.

If you’re like me you’ve probably absorbed a lot of messages about striving to be great, to have impact, to live the biggest life you can. And that’s okay. But it needs balance.

Not everyone is a Douglas fir planted 400 years ago in deep humus. 

Spend time getting to know the real shape that’s hidden in the seed of you. Notice how that shape adapts to the soil of your life—your honest history, the truth of your circumstances, the gifts and limitations of your own body and mind.

Look closely at the whole of yourself without comparison. How beautiful.


Let the Wind Dance You

Imagine
if all you had to do
to be beautiful
was to let the wind
dance you
where you stand
as you grow into
the only shape
you ever had.


Categories
Poetry

When That Fire, a poem about life’s fearsome autumns (and surviving them)

When I first wrote this poem I thought it would be the beginning of a longer piece, something with more of a redemptive arc. I tried and tried to find the rest of the poem, but nothing else fit.

Reading it now, I love that it stops where it does. That it doesn’t try to soften the terror of watching one of life’s autumns sweep in around you.

And now I can see that the redemptive arc is the poem itself—just the fact that it exists. That there’s a person called Me who survived the annihilation, who endured the long wait for spring, who can look back with deeper eyes and say, “I remember when…”

Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, so I’m sharing this poem to honor the autumns we all experience in our lives:

When That Fire

The destroying fire
is coming into
the leaves
again—

oranges and deep
reds gathering
around the
edges,

preparing to consume
whole trees,
turn forests
into

boneyards. I remember
when that fire
came for
me.

Categories
Poetry

Look to the Sky

I wrote this poem about a month ago while watching the sky one evening. It was based mostly on an intuition and a gathering sadness about all we’re losing in the world. I wasn’t sure if or how I was going to share it.

But then today the New York Times published this article: Birds Are Vanishing From North America

And suddenly the poem took on new relevance. So I’m sharing it today because it helps me feel the sadness behind the statistics, instead of letting them numb me.

Look to the sky
while there are still birds.
Who knows what we’ll lose first,
or last?

Note how the crows
all fly the same way
in the evening,
flapping and veering toward
a collective dream
of home. Imagine how
you’ll describe them
to your children’s children.

Or the seagull that shoots
across their path,
so full of purpose—
an arrow into the coming night.