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.
Think back to the very beginning of something you were excited about. Maybe you’d just gotten a great new job, or started dating someone you were really interested in. Or maybe it was a new artistic practice, or a new identity you were stepping into.
Whatever it was, you probably felt a sort of electric joy going into it. But if you were aware enough I’ll bet yet felt fear, too.
Because any time you commit to something, you invite uncertainty into your life. No matter how optimistic you are, you actually have no idea what this new thing will entail—losses that blindside you, rewards you didn’t expect, paths opening and closing in places you never would have thought to look.
When Elizabeth and I were planning our wedding ceremony, we wanted to acknowledge the uncertainty we were courting—the unknowable decades ahead, the mysterious ways we’d both change, the inevitable seasons of exile and loss right alongside those of connection and joy.
So we decided to say a second set of vows. We called them our Vows to the Mystery.
We used the cardinal directions—with their symbolic connection to the four seasons—to help us imagine what might lay ahead. I wrote a short poem for each, and after each one we were asked if we promised to meet that season “as best we can.”
I hope these vows help you embrace the mysteries in your life, too, as best you can.
Turn with us to the South, where the sun climbs to the sky’s peak and floods the world with light and warmth, inviting the hidden sweetness of all things to grow full and heavy on the branches of the world.
You will know the Summers of life, when the sun and the shade, the heat and the breeze, the berries softening along the trail all seem to conspire for your satisfaction, when the world’s gifts overflow the basket of your needs, and your deep practice is to rest in this abundance with gratitude—even knowing that the season will pass.
Turn with us to the West, where the sun falls into the horizon’s open arms and the rising tide of cold and dark sends the shiver of change through every living thing.
You will know the Autumns of life, when cherished pieces of your world and yourselves start to wilt and wither, when what has sustained you is slipping away, and only your faith— that renewal is the dancing partner of loss— helps you trust that the seeds of your future wholeness have already been planted.
Turn with us to the North, where silence fills the dark globe of the night, and the cold wind racing unchecked through skeleton trees sends all the plants and creatures to seek shelter in each other and the earth.
You will know the Winters of life, when the dark nights of loss stretch endlessly around you and even the days are cold enough to test the resilience of your heart, when the work of survival takes all you have to give, and you need the warmth of each other’s bodies to make it through the night.
Turn with us to the East, where the light grows like a promise behind the mountains, drawing up from the earth the delicate hopes of new leaves, new flowers opening, new eyes alive to the world for the first time.
You will know the Springs of life, when the hidden seeds of your deep longing finally push their first shoots into the light of your days, and your sacred responsibility is to nurture this fragile growth even as it carves and moulds you in frightening, wondrous ways.
This is the poem I wrote for my wedding. I spent months on it. And on Saturday I finally got to see it do its work in the world when we used it to open our wedding ceremony.
Elizabeth and I both wanted to stay away from talk of “becoming one” in our ceremony, with its implications of giving up individual selfhood. Instead we saw our relationship as creating a sacred space between our two selves—a space where we can meet each other, support each other, and cheer each other on as we each explore, learn, and grow deeper into ourselves.
Those themes, together with our love of river valleys and mountains—and the beautiful venue nestled at the base of the North Cascades—helped shape the final poem. And Elizabeth designed the lovely image you see above to carry those same themes visually.
The poem is called The Space Between Us:
Don’t try to give me all of yourself— as if you would, as if the wilderness that bears your name is yours to give.
Instead let’s live like mountains: two worlds rooted together but each cutting our own shape into the changing sky.
I’ll be the one to see you radiant in the morning light, and to watch as evening’s last glow anoints your head.
I’ll be your companion as the seasons paint you green and gold and white and green again.
And as the snows melt and the rains fall, carving ever deeper the beautiful grooves of your being, let them flow down into
the sacred space between us— this quiet valley our bodies make, where deep waters and the dark earth
take everything we’ve lost and everything we’ve given and make new life for all who call this place home.
This is a poem of permission. A lot of people wish they could push pause for a little while, but they’re afraid to show any uncertainty about the life they’ve constructed for themselves. They’re afraid it would mean they’ve failed. That they’ll be forgotten. That they’ll disappear.
But if you don’t step back sometimes, chances are you’re neglecting some deeper, unheard part of you. And so what you’re giving to the world lacks the fullness that we need from you.
The truth is that hiding from the world is one of the central competencies of being alive. Every animal knows how. Every plant can bury its aliveness in the earth. You knew, at some point.
This poem is permission to remember, and to discover what might be waiting for you there. It’s called:
The First Promise
Sometimes you need to hide from everything you’ve promised to become, so you can find the first promise— the one you and the soft world sang to each other
down beneath the tall bushes along the old streambed, when nobody knew exactly where you were, back before the person everyone needed you to be learned to find you even there.
Those bushes are gone now but the sanctuary still waits— in the quiet places under trees, in the spacious darkness of a solitary night— and if you learn again how to hide, even from
the expectations you’ve mistaken for your own, you’ll find that the world still knows your secret harmony, and that some brave and brokenhearted voice in you never stopped singing.