Poetry for Challenging Times: “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”

When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience.  That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem  “How the Stars Get in Your Bones”  by Jan Richardson.  We all agreed that this poem  captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day.  We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.

How the Stars Get in Your Bones
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
—Jan Richardson

Stars Get in Your Bones
Wise Women Also Came

Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.

And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
now become—
who can say what day it happened?—
a beginning.

See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.

See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.

Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
and time?

I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.

I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.

This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.

Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
becoming beautiful,
becoming blessed,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.

[The Wise Women Also Came image is © Jan Richardson from the book Night Visions. To use this image or order an art print, please visit this page at Jan Richardson Images.]


What You Wish For: Clarinda Harriss

Sixty-some years ago I had to let go of my high school crush on Tom. We were both graduating, me heading up the road to Goucher and he taking off into the wild blue yonder (literally); besides, despite from his unabashed kindness to everybody (quite remarkable in a high school BMOC who was both an athlete and a schoolbook whiz), he had barely noticed me.

Clarinda Harriss
Clarinda Harriss

Actually I didn’t let my crush go altogether. I always inquired about him when our various five- and ten-year reunions rolled around. Via alumni chatter I learned he was a pilot and later that he had a glamorous, globe-encompassing career in the airline industry.   I held onto the idea of at least seeing him again someday, but I let him go again when, to my surprise, he showed up at a reunion—possibly our class’s 30th—with his second wife She was so clever and so lovely (to this day I envy her nose) that I knew Tom was lost to me forever.

Then came the months-long preparations for our class’s 55th reunion. The reunion dinner was to be held at my house, with close to 55 people in attendance. The pre-dinner months brought a frenzy of email. At one point I got utterly fed up with myriad Reply Alls about stuff that concerned only the sender and sendee. I pecked out a message: COULD WE PLEASE STOP HITTING REPLY ALL TO EVERYTHING? RE. THE CURRENT DISCUSSION, PLEASE JUST LOOK AT THE REPLY FROM TOM AND DO WHAT HE SUGGESTED.   But of course that message required me to hit Reply All.   So Tom was among the recipients.

To my huge surprise, he replied—to me only—that he was happy to re-make my acquaintance. In fact, he’d like to head up to Baltimore sometime soon. He had been holding onto the notion of revisiting the town he spent his youth in. Maybe dinner. . .?

Thus a long (time) story became short.   When the reunion dinner actually took place, I was barbecuing for the multitudes on a fancy new outdoor grill, courtesy of Tom.   Shortly thereafter he moved to Baltimore. Within the year I allowed as how it was pretty stupid of him to maintain a Baltimore apartment when he had so far spent a total of two nights there. My house had plenty of room. It was the “Old Manse” I’d lived in with my parents and grandmother when he and I met in high school: a perfect place for me to Live In Sin with someone who was quite literally the man of my dreams. He moved in.

Fast forward, but not very far.   I enjoyed being with Tom. My friends and family did too. I liked developing routines, his running, my writing, our multi-family holiday seasons, discovering our favorite places to eat raw oysters. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that something was very wrong. He was not a heavy drinker and he certainly didn’t do drugs, but he had the sense of time (or rather the absence thereof) commonly associated with potheads. Not much sense of direction, either. Strange indeed for the ex-captain of an industry where space and time were of the essence. Pressed for specifics about his last couple of decades, I discovered that he could barely remember them. Such discoveries slammed me like a runaway truck.   Especially because by this time I no longer had a crush on Tom.   I loved him. And the feeling was mutual.

The first appointment at Johns Hopkins’ memory loss clinic confirmed what had already dawned on me: Tom had Alzheimer’s. Had? Has.   Its grip on Tom was fairly light at first, but it is tightening, tightening.   The Big A is not something that lets a person go  It holds on as a cat holds onto a mouse, playing with it before killing it.

About six months ago I began keeping The Dementia Diary. I started it at the suggestion of a close friend. I’d too often emailed her screens-full of the latest losses of keys, glasses, wallet, the latest finding of the dirty laundry whirling in the dryer. Of all three pairs of lost glasses, crushed to smithereens.   Of being asked a dozen times in as many minutes what we’re doing an hour from now. Of his conflation of the TV remote with the phone. And losing them both. Of the time I freaked out and rolled myself up in the soft kitchen rug, screaming.

Luckily I had the D. Diary to turn to when I got home from an hour at a near-by restaurant lunching with some close women friends to find an ambulance and two police cars in front of the house. Tom had hit the “panic button” on our burglar alarm. Of course it was an accident—he’d been trying to make sure the alarm was off before opening the door for the UPS man—but I think he was, in fact, panicked.   Like many people with Alzheimer’s, he becomes agitated at the unusual, and the most unusual thing of all is for me to be somewhere else.   Those afternoons with “the Ladies Who Lunch” are my once-a-month two hours away. I hold onto them for dear life, as for dear life he holds onto me.

And that is exactly why, though I need to let go of the idea of Tom and me having what could be described as a normal relationship any more, I hold onto him with love, and I do mean romantic love—not just for the charming boy he was when I got that first crush, but for the remarkable man he is now. He remains one of the sweetest, best-looking, most generous-spirited, smartest humans I’ve ever known, despite how hard it has become for him to put his ideas into words. Though his children say he used to be quite impatient, he never makes a fuss when I myself do something dumb, forget something important. I believe he would lay down his life for me.

I understand now why he seems so much more fearful than I am when police helicopters shine search lights into the yards of our leafy, lovely, crime-ridden neighborhood. I used to think it was simply because I’m used to this ‘hood and he isn’t. But no, it’s because he feels he must protect me. I saw this in action last September at three AM when a cat burglar really did creep into our bedroom. Tom leapt for him, yelling threats, cussing like a sailor, and the robber ran like hell with Tom at his heels.

Tom has not let go of what makes him him. I hold him close.

Bio: Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University.  For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them:  publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers.   Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) ,  is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry.  She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.

Hope and Gratitude: Tools for Moving Forward

When I was going through a difficult time in my life, I found a card with a wonderful quote by Emily Dickinson that I used to fuel me through my darkest days:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – “
Bird and flower
 That quote sprang to my mind as I looked around at  the many tragedies occurring around the world that shake our faith in humanity. The bombings and murders in Paris, the police brutality in our cities and schools, and the continuing tragedy of the millions of homeless people in our midst. As the old saying goes, there’s plenty of tragedy to go around. So how do we hold on to hope?

Somehow, we find the hope and the will to go on. One way that people often respond to tragedy is to create informal memorials to remember the victims and to comfort their families. In Paris, memorials sprung up all over the city and the glow of candles still shines as if to blot out the darkness of despair. Churches and social service agencies offer housing and meals to homeless people. Right here in Columbia, Maryland, Bridges for Housing Stability offers assistance for families and individuals who are in danger of losing their homes or who are already homeless.

And just this past weekend at Baltimore’s Center Stage theater, Anna Deavere Smith presented her one-woman show, Doing Time in Education, The Baltimore Chapter. Smith has traveled around the United States interviewing politicians, educators, prisoners, mayors, psychologists, and students about their experiences with education. In her one woman show, Smith offers us a panoramic view of the problems we face in our schools by sharing the voices in our community.  The performance was powerful and thought provoking.

But more than Smith’s amazing performance, Center Stage offered the theater-goers an opportunity to discuss the issues raised and to dream of what we might do as a community to change and improve our schools for all of our children. Each group of theater-goers had a facilitator who led them through a brainstorming session where we discussed what we can change and what we can’t change.  What can we change? Class sizes, arts programming, opting out of testing were just a few of the ideas. As for what we can’t change, I agree with the person who said, “Nothing!”

Smith’s one-woman-show explored the difficult and serious issues of the school-to-prison pipeline and the many faceted needs of urban students, families, and teachers. At times, the weight of the problems was profound. Yet, a theater full of people from all walks of life had come together on a sunny Sunday afternoon to pool their collective interest and ideas–and hope filled our hearts as we walked out into the city.

So where does gratitude come into this narrative? As I drove home from the theater, I listened The Science of Gratitude Radio Special narrated by Susan Sarandon.  One of the most striking facts that I heard was related to the value of shared experiences. According to the research, people are more likely to be generous and express gratitude after experiencing a shared experience than after they receive a gift. For me, hearing that confirmed the magic of the afternoon that I had just spent with my daughter and my two friends at Center Stage. We had shared an experience. The positive energy in the theater was infectious and inspiring. That alone inspires me to feel hope and gratitude as we move forward to face our challenges.

Enjoy the poem by Emily Dickinson. May it increase your hope. May you feel gratitude for the uplifting thoughts.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers” (314) by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.