I have been a wordsmith my entire life and yet, not a poet. Despite this fact, poetry is often where I turn when life becomes the most uncomprehensible. And this past year has been fairly uncomprehensible in anyone’s book.
And so today, I offer three beautiful poems from three different poets and a bit of my own reflection. Maybe one of the poems will strike a chord with you too.
The first, “Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver has been a favourite of mine for years. In fact, many of her poems are favourites since they often include nature and trees and dogs, some of my favourite things. But this one has been especially pertinent for me this year.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
⁃ Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’
So much of my life I have tried to be good. I was constantly told as a child, ‘be good.’ And I have been good, for the most part. But my life’s journey has shown me what one person thinks is good, is someone else’s bad. I have learned I don’t have to be good. I don’t need to repent for things that others deem bad. When I listen to my animal body, I am good. I do what’s good for me. What my intuition, my soul knows is right.
At the beginning of the year my soft animal body spoke loudly to me. I wasn’t able to walk for a number of days and ended up in hospital. Lots of tests were run but what came back is that my Central Nervous System had shut down over stress and grief. My body wanted me quiet to reevaluate my life. And it did it in a pretty spectacular way. I had to listen. I had to get quiet. I had to let my nervous system heal from years of trauma and grief that I had bottled up inside.
With the help of my somatic therapist, I’ve spent the year listening to my body. Helping it heal. Meditation helps. Dancing helps. Journaling helps. Sitting in nature helps. Quiet helps. Poetry helps.
And meanwhile, the world has gone on.
We moved to isolation and lockdowns due to COVID-19. I lost my job. One of my best friends was given just a few months to live. I faced the fact that I may never see my parents alive again in person as international borders were closed.
And I retreated further inside myself. Taking comfort from the natural order of things. Being grateful for the sun and the rain, the birdsong, my kids’ laughter and being able to walk again. I created a nurturing nest for myself at home.
Then George Floyd was murdered and the racism, white supremacy and ignorance that exists in my home country of the United States, was exposed as poisonous viruses the country was built upon. As I watched news reports, I was fearful for the country of my birth. Could the civil war that I have believed for years is inevitable, really be happening?
As I started to despair and my body began to ache in familiar places from fear, I remembered Joy Harjo’s fear poem, “I Give You Back”.
I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.
I release you.
You were my beloved and hated twin,
But now, I don’t know you as myself.
I release you with all the pain I would know at the death of my daughters.
You are not my blood anymore.
I give you back to the white soldiers who burned down my home, beheaded my children, raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters. I give you back to those who stole the food from our plates when we were starving.
I release you fear, because you hold these scenes in front of me and I was born with eyes that can never close.
I release you fear, so you can no longer keep me naked and frozen in the winter, or smothered under blankets in the summer.
I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you
I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved,
To be loved,
To be loved, fear.
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice, my belly or in my heart
But come here, fear.
I am alive and you are so afraid of dying.
⁃ Joy Harjo, ‘I Give You Back’
I love the words of this poem. Each time I read and sit with it, it resonates more and more for me. I love the sound of the heartbeat pounding through the stanzas. Getting stronger throughout the poem as the fear recedes. And I love the imagery attached to fear. It reminds me that it is I who gives my fear the leash and the knife and I lay myself across the fire. It is I who then has the power to take myself back. And through doing so, I release a little bit more fear that has found it’s home in my body: fear from the pandemic, fear from the patriarchal society we live in, fear from the climate change that is happening all around us and can be seen on a daily basis. I release my fear from my animal body and in so doing, I find peace.
These two poems above have carried me through the last 12 months in ways I can hardly explain.
And then, just last week, I found this poem (or maybe it found me) by John O’Donohue called “For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing”. I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted and can use all the blessings I can get at the moment.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
⁃ John O’Donohue, “For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing”
This poem speaks to me.
I am in the empty time. I have been in this empty time now for some time and have come to embrace it. I am learning patiently to love and accept all of my wounded and wild parts. I have wept. And opened to allowing. I have taken refuge in my senses: cooking, eating, planting my garden, building a chicken coop, knitting, painting, reading. I watch the rain from my sofa, glad to see it and yet, know it will clear and bring sunshine (and sometimes rainbows like the one above that I photographed from my back deck). I have sat in stillness and silence like a stone, until that is my new preferred position — not talking to anyone, not engaging with the outside world. No email. No social media. No texting. No blogging. Just listening to my heart and soul.
I have been gentle with myself – taking care of myself in a way I have always given others but not myself. It is loving and liberating to focus on oneself after so many years of giving. I’m exhausted from giving. I have rid my life of those who are vexed in spirit — limiting calls and texts with those who are not in the same space as me. I have lingered with a soulmate who reminded me we have all the time of the world, as we are connected throughout lifetimes.
I am slowly returning to myself. I am not rushing. I love this new land I have found. It is full of love and peace and grace. And I recognise that I am blessed.
And once again, I appreciate the power of poetry to help, to soothe, to ease and to heal when life feels all too much.
Do you have a favourite poem that helps you at this time? Or does one of those above speak to you? I’d love to have you share in the comments below.
Peace and blessings my friend. Xx