Poem for a Cold

I’m recovering from a cold this week, so my fuzzy brain and I think it would be wise to give you a poem rather than try to formulate anything particular coherent on our own. This is one of my favorites.

A Message from the Wanderer
by William Stafford

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occurred to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.


You can listen to Stafford read the poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Feeding Each Other

To channel some combination of Julia Childs and Emily Post: there may be no better way to celebrate resurrection morn than by dining on that most splendid of nature’s creations, the egg, in all its wondrous varieties—quiched, deviled, etc.—while enjoying the companionship of good friends. Which is what happened at my house on Easter.

What made this brunch so delightful is that my friends—and mom—are awesome. First of all, they cook well and they enjoy eating good food. Yes, that really comes first. Second of all, they laugh a lot and don’t mind being silly. Though no small children attended, the tallest, least furry bunny I’ve ever met brought a basket full of eggs and put together an Easter egg hunt for the rest of us.

Third of all, they are smart and welcoming and loving. This particular group had never gathered before, and only a few people knew each other. I suspect that anyone who heard the laughter or observed the general good cheer would have concluded that these people had known each other for a long time. One friend was talking about a benefit bike ride that he was preparing for, and everyone immediately volunteered to contribute even though they’d only met him a couple of hours before.

As one story tells it, heaven and hell at first appear exactly the same: rows of long tables laden with food and lined with people sitting at the feast. The people hold long-handled spoons. The handles are so long you can’t get the spoon to your mouth. In hell, everyone is miserable because they can’t eat. In heaven, everyone is feeding each other.

I think that’s what happened this Easter—we fed each other good food, good conversation and good humor and were willing to be fed by others. Resurrection might be as simple as that.

Here’s a poem by William Stafford about our daily chance for resurrection. I’ve posted it before, but it’s the perfect size for Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday, April 24. Stick this in your pocket and hand it out or read it to people. Guerilla poetry!

Yes
By William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Momma Told Me

I don’t know why we’re designed to go two steps forward and one step back, but I’m convinced we are. Last week: Zen master. This week: whiner.

I exaggerate last week’s accomplishments, but I did have this miraculous moment of getting over myself. One of the software systems at work appears to have been designed to decrease productivity, and I generally spend a lot of time and energy hating it while using it.

This time a moment of spiritual brilliance flashed upon me. If I changed the goal from finishing the task to being present and paying attention, I could stop fighting the inefficient system because its inefficiency would no longer matter. So I changed the goal. My mind cleared up. My patience increased. My work probably improved, though I have no way to measure that.

Fast forward to this week. While working on another not favorite task, I said to myself, you could use this time as practice; where is your attention? I replied, somewhat snappishly, I don’t want to practice, I want to be miserable and complain. I clearly saw myself making that choice, but changing my approach still didn’t interest me. One step back—at least.

I kept this up most of the day and wore myself down sufficiently that, by the time I was chopping kale for dinner, I could consider the option of simply relaxing and accepting my sour disposition. Then this line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” came floating in: “Tell everyone just to remember/their names, and remind others, later, when we/ find each other.” Some days that’s all we can do, remember who we are, and that’s OK because that day is not eternal. The next day we’ll be capable of making different choices.

I’ll end with the rest of Stafford’s stanza because he sums it up so beautifully:

“…Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.”

Getting Un-Busy

When someone asks us how we are, there are so many responses we never use: ecstatic, grieving, lonely, joyful, sad, afraid, pensive, loved, happy. The acceptable emotional range runs from pretty good to fine on the positive side and can’t complain to hanging in there on the negative side. But if we want to make it clear that we are suffering nobly we say, “Busy!”

I hear busy more often than any other answer at work. It is accurate. Most people wear more hats than comfortably fit on their heads and have been tasked with more than can be accomplished in forty hours a week, or fifty or sixty.

I sometimes feel myself competing to be busier than others because it equates to working harder and being a more responsible, valuable employee and therefore a clearly superior human being. Because that’s the point of life, really—to be better than everyone else. That will lead to fulfillment and a sense of profound peace every time.

A few months ago, I decided to stop focusing on the busy-ness, stop comparing overwhelmingly behind horror stories, and find some other way to describe my state of being. I was doing pretty well. Until last week.

Then I got really busy. Emails went unanswered. Projects fell off my plate, pushed off by more urgent projects. When people asked me how I was, I didn’t say overwhelmed or distracted or struggling to enjoy my accomplishments because the next task is always looming. I said busy. I’ve been saying it ever since.

The week before last, a hummingbird came and hovered in front of my window and commenced turning flips in the air. This is the kind of thing I don’t notice when I’m caught up in having too much to do. This is the kind of thing I think is most important to notice in this life.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is another one from William Stafford that suggests a possible alternative to a constant focus on our ever-growing to-do list.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

Yes by William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.


Stafford is one of my favorites. He admits the existence of dark times while insisting on the reality of the light. You will most likely see more of him this month.

Note: This is one in a series of poems selected to help those who may have been intimidated by poetry see that it need not be complicated to be beautiful and meaningful. Happy National Poetry Month!