An explication of a year

Somewhere along the way, poetry transformed from a carefully curated collection of words existing on a flat page into a lens through which I view the world. It is a metamorphosis that is tricky to explain to anyone existing outside of  my brain (which is everyone…so hang in there with me…). It goes beyond the way poetry in its vastness can challenge my perceptions and expose the bubble ensconcing my existence…beyond the exchange poetry makes–a telescope to view the far reaches replacing the finite view through the microscope of our daily lives. I suppose that all good writing offers such an opportunity, but in its compact punch, in its easily consumable size and portraiture, poetry invites us into the confrontation with truth without overwhelm or overstatement…leaving space for us, as readers, to linger beyond the reading…to meet the poem with our story and to wrestle as we begin to redefine understanding.

Yet, even beyond this, I’ve grown to see life itself as a series of stanzas, lines, poems–pieces of a collection, of an anthology, reflective of my own story and the revision of my vision, of the truths I have come to learn. Having long been a big believer in the importance and impact of “story” in our lives (both the stories we tell and perpetuate and those told to us and about us), it is no great leap to now realize that my stories are framed in verse rather than in prose.

As we ready to depart form this year of so much, there is a call to be rid of it, to move on, to not look back. Yet, in looking back, I realize there is so much that we can’t nullify or erase if we are really to move ahead. If I look at this past year through this poetic lens, there are stanzas that speak haltingly to fear that are followed by stanzas sprinkling seeds of hope…stanzas revealing terrible trauma met by those marking the path to healing…stanzas revealing the rediscovery of what is truly valuable after stanzas marking our former fault-full ambition.

There is imagery laden with a militaristic stealth attack waged by viral particles too tiny to hold in human sight. And then there is the resultant imagery looming heavy with the weight of loss (lost time, jobs, loved ones, health…so much lost). But there is also imagery erupting jubilantly with the wealth of humanity unveiled in the face of isolation and difficulty…singing from open windows, birthday parades, mass meal distribution, surging gratitude for those on the front lines, teachers delivering books to kids in need of a read.There were weeks and months that overstayed the welcome of their allotted time, of their line, and replicated their difficulty in the weeks and months to follow in an extraordinarily uncomfortable bit of enjambment.

But I think the punctuated moments offered up to pause and reflect are where I linger the most. The moments within parentheses where we brought joy and newness to our lives interrupted (as if to say, “Take that!”). The ellipses dividing the lines of our days as we pondered, “What next?” all the while realizing the danger of such a wonder. The constant question marks, line after line, stanza after stanza, as we walked through unknown regions with no map to guide us–only shifting sands beneath our feet and the next best step, which was?

But then this–mostly this…

I often tell my students that the em dash is like a poetic breath on the page–a bit of space sacrificed intentionally by the poet so we, the reader, can inhale, consider and exhale before moving on to the rest of the poem. The protests that awakened the world to the truth and still very present ravages of racism–that opened eyes to the systems still in place perpetuating daily the vast detriment that positions of privilege have birthed–began while the world sat in quarantine…hibernating, if you will, within the bounds of one giant em dash. We had the time–to pay attention, to look inward, to be unsettled by our own truths (well, as a white woman, I can only speak for my own truths), and to determine how to move forward. We had the time, without excuse, to witness, to listen, and to learn from this most difficult and complex stanza (one new to so many, but for others a repeated refrain they’ve known for years). We had the time to take the breath offered by the em dash of quarantine and to actively set forth to do more, to make change. That moment, that em dash, was gifted with intent by no Earthly poet because we are after all called to live this life in love. That love is not in name only nor can it thrive if we keep it blindfolded. This call requires each of us to act in love and that includes challenging systems that deny humanity. We needed a pause, a reset, to see this…to feel this…to live into this.

If I’ve learned anything from the stanza of this past year, I’ve learned the value of intentionality…of knowingly creating space to pause, observe, take a breath and move forward. This em dash intentionality is true in all aspects of my life–whether I’m examining if my actions speak loudly enough to my beliefs or whether I’m considering ways to spend more time making time for friends and family without the burden of school clouding my vision and my heart.

As we leave 2020, I am eager for the period that will close the verse, full stop, but I also don’t want to burn to ashes the pages containing the year, leaving them to scatter to the winds. The lines and stanza of 2020, if the struggle is to be worth anything, must color those yet to be written in 2021–so that we can be better, so we can exist in some form of gratitude for the days to come (even the crappy ones), so that we can ensure the year of too much doesn’t win. I won’t carry every line, every image, every mark of punctuation everyday, it would be too heavy. But “the mist” that Juan Felipe Herrera speaks of will linger as a reminder of all I’ve gained even in the leanest and cruelest of days.

(Also this…I love this poem as we enter a new year…“Oceans” by Juan Ramon Jimenez)

lifting the lens

I think sometimes in the midst of the bombardment of disappointments and devastation the world seems to hurl freely these days, it becomes easy to lose sight of just how much authorial control we still have within our lives. It becomes easy to unwittingly sink into helplessness and to relinquish our rights to the details of our story without even an honorarium paid. Lately, the stuff  of  life has become exceedingly good at bullying us into believing that we need a new year or a new phase of life to be able to fully enjoy and live into our existence.

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

And to sit idly, waiting for something to come along and offer immediate healing is a dangerous stance to take. In doing this we become bystanders in our own lives, rather than active participants. It is an admission and acceptance that our joy can only come from someone or someplace else. That we cannot create that for ourselves and must wait for it to be delivered on a schedule that isn’t published or even guaranteed.

In this season of giving thanks, remembering that in every circumstance we have the ability to lift the lens of gratitude rather than the scope of victimization holds the potential to restore our outlook. We have the ability to empower ourselves to seek the goodness in the scant and the beacon in the bleak. In the moments in my life in which I have felt the deepest grief and the least control over my circumstances, gratitude has unfailingly delivered a way forward while restoring my rights to the details of my own story.

There was no other way to walk toward peace after delivering a child into a world he would never know. The Oprah Show was still airing daily in the year that we lost Nathan. And you know, Oprah’s words carried weight, so when she began talking about the importance and life changing qualities of something as simple as gratitude, I paid attention. Okay, I also thought she had lost her mind. I was so deep in grief. I was so angry and for so many reasons. I was so full of shame and regret. And I couldn’t seem to let go of any of it let alone summon the strength to seek gratitude. What could I possibly have to be grateful for?

But Oprah said gratitude changed lives, so I tried it.

It wasn’t easy.

As Joy Harjo writes, “Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.” (link below)

Gratitude is an active stance and as such required total effort on my part. Without constant attention and care, without a mindfulness to lift the lens, gratitude disintegrates before it can invigorate. There is one day that the lens was lifted for me…one day that sort of changed everything. I was leaving the house of a friend who delivered her child a month or two after we lost ours, and I had to pull over because I was weeping so hard it became impossible to drive. I had just stopped in to deliver some treats and to see the sweet babe and somehow hadn’t prepared myself for the onslaught of emotion that would follow. As I sat in my car sobbing beneath the weight and complexity of loss, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was crystal blue–not a cloud to be seen–and it was stunning and somehow full of hope that things would not always be so cloudy and dim. A switch flipped. Through my tears and with a shaky voice, I spoke into gratitude (like literally out loud)–thank you for this amazing sky to remind me that there is still light in the world…there is still hope.

Everyday after that moment, as I walked the often shadowy path toward peace after loss, gratitude was my guide…my signpost. But more importantly, gratitude was my choice. Gratitude (and well, I guess Oprah too) changed my life.

So, even now, in the face of all that 2020 has delivered, in the face of chronic illness and pain, in the face of so much uncertainty and turmoil, I walk the world wielding gratitude because that is something I can control…that is something I don’t need to wait for…that is something that even in the most treacherous moments unfailingly shines a light. It is not a perfect practice and often requires effort I don’t feel like exerting, but it is a worthwhile endeavor every single day of the week.

“For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” by Joy Harjo, referenced earlier, speaks to this effort towards gratitude beautifully. Honestly, it is worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing–this poem is stunning and a gorgeous reminder. But just in case, at least I can leave you with this excerpt…

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.”

(And trust me. This is not an attempt to oversimplify of the vast weight of mental illness. I am not offering gratitude as some kind of simplistic inoculation against the depths of depression or any other depletion of mental health.  Just as a way to see a less than forgiving world)