Traumatized by Poetry

A running joke in my family, is that our daughters were traumatized when they were young, by my reciting poetry in the family van.  As daughters K and L tell the story, their childhood was scarred by my reciting portions of poems as I drove them to dance classes, school events or on family vacations.

To show that the trauma wasn’t too great and that their humor remained intact, the daughters in their teens, graced me (for Father’s Day) with a home made anthology of my favorite poets. The booklet was entitled ‘from the back of the van’ (in lower case a nod to ee.cummings).

The introduction written by L my eldest daughter reads: ‘A collection of acceptable poetry. Please, please, please do not feel like we are giving you permission to read this to us.  Love your darling daughters.’

Best Father’s Day gift, ever. (Okay, second best, the best was L and K gifting me with Red Sox tickets, 10 rows from third base, with me sitting between my daughters).

Where did my love of poetry come from?

It came out of the blue.  For much of my life I’d found poetry too sugary or too abstract.  What I heard I didn’t like or didn’t get.

A kayak trip to the Tongass Wilderness in Alaska changed everything.  It was summer of 2002 and I was on a Zen meditation Kayak trip in the primal wilderness of the Tongass.   A deep, dark, beautiful old growth forest indented by the bracing blue waters of Tebenkof Bay.

Kurt Hoelting our guide, welcomed each morning by reciting a poem.  He channeled the words of the poets Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Wendell Berry.  Their words weren’t syrupy or abstract.  They were real.  They reflected and amplified the wisdom of this wilderness.

Poems spoken from the heart spoke to mine.  It was an epiphany.

For the first time, I heard and received as a gift, this poem by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

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 your 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.

 

Kayaking on Tebenkof Bay, paddling the inlets as doorways into the wilderness, I let the poem wash over me…announcing my place in the family of things.  This poem, as others have done, opened my heart, mind and imagination to the beauty and mystery that was in, with and all around me.

Years later, during a health crisis, Mary Oliver’s poems would settle and sustain me on a different journey.   Mary and William Stafford (the poet laureate of Oregon) and others, became my travelling companions through the varied seasons of living.

So, you can see why I couldn’t help but share my love of poetry.  Even when our daughters were buckled-in to their car seats and had little choice.

My children, now grown, have forgiven me my poetic excess.  Their long ago gift of a homegrown anthology was their way of saying ‘all was forgiven’.

And, it gets even better.  K my journalist daughter recently invited me to participate in a book club for a radio show she produces.  The book? ‘Delights and Shadows’ by Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Yes!

Celts and Geese

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s haze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here. ~ Wendell Berry

photo-of-goose

In Celtic spirituality a goose is the symbol for the Holy Spirit.  For the Celts raised on the windswept cliffs of the Irish Sea it is the goose that survives and thrives.

For the Celts a wild, loud, sometimes aggressive goose is a more fitting symbol of that great mystery called Spirit.  Whereas tradition depicts a dove, it is a goose which honks with an explosive energy and flies on wide, powerful, expansive wings.

Wendell Berry the Kentucky farmer and poet believes that wild geese flying over remind us ‘that what we need is here’, that the mysteries of life surround us…seed and earth and honking geese…awakening us to the gift of now.

 

 

 

Antidote: Peace of Wild Things

Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~ Wendell Berry

photo Ipswich River

Last week feeling overwhelmed by the darkness of political discourse and the horrific images of yet another act of gun violence in our nation, I retreated  to the river.

The Ipswich is a gem just 15 minutes from my house.  With a few friends we slipped from one world into another.  Unplugged via canoe and kayak we moved with the water.

Soon we fell silent as we opened ourselves to the mystery and beauty of nature. Our companions?  The whistle of a hawk, the prehistoric screech of the Great Blue Heron and the slap of a beaver tail…letting us know that we were approaching their home.

We paddled slowly allowing the busyness and tension of life to slip away, at least for a time.   As the poet writes, ‘we came into the presence of still water, the peace of wild things’.  And indeed, for those moments, we rested in the grace of the world and were free.