A Poem for Summer

Summer’s here!  It’s always a joy to welcome the warm weather, the flowers, the picnics, and vacations. Many people schedule trips in the summer to take advantage of the good weather and more relaxed schedules. How about you? What will you be doing this summer?

I will be taking time this summer to write, visit friends, and relax. I’ve felt that my schedule is too crowded and my to-do list never ends. I have to remind myself that I’m the one in charge of my schedule!  Now that I work part-time, I have more flexibility. Yet my lifelong habit of packing my days with activity is tough to break. I need a reset!

The Butterfly Beetle

So, I’ll be taking some time off from blogging to refresh and recharge. I may post a poem from time to time and then resume regular posts in the fall. In the meantime, take a look at some of the older blog posts and revisit some old favorites. Happy summer!

The Sunflowers by Mary Oliver

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

How Poetry Heals: A Personal Story

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Ancient doorway in Rome
The other door to healing

Even in the 1990s when I  struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry. One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression was poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary quest through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing psychological pain that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling  had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver

I remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out why it tasted familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to  realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see his behavior for what it was. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. My body and my mind were finally aligned. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

How Poetry Heals: A Personal Story

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Ancient doorway in Rome
The other door to healing

Even in the 1990s when I  struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry. One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression was poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary quest through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing psychological pain that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling  had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver

I remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out why it tasted familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to  realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see his behavior for what it was. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. My body and my mind were finally aligned. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

 

Do You Love Mysteries?

When you ask people what kind of books they like to read, one of the most frequent answers is…mysteries!  I think my first mysteries were of the Nancy Drew variety.  Recently, after hearing an interview with Jacqueline Winspear,  I have fallen in love with her series of mysteries featuring a British WWI nurse-turned-detective, Maisie Dobbs.

Ancient doorway in Rome
Ancient doorway in Rome

Why are so many of us drawn to mysteries? Why do we love sitting down with a book and getting lost, sometimes for hundreds of pages?  I think as humans, we are drawn to ideas, places, and people we don’t fully understand. We like the challenge of discovery. Even evolution tells us that we humans are constantly seeking novelty.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Mysteries,Yes” celebrates the mysteries of life in a compelling way. Enjoy!  And may you always be curious!

Mysteries, Yes
~Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Finally, here’s a link to Mary Oliver’s interview with Krista Tippett, the host of  the fine radio show “On Being.”

Keeping Your Heart in Your Work

Toad Hall's cabin by the pond
Toad Hall’s cabin by the pond

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Remember when you were a child and you pretended to work in some occupation? As a girl growing up in the 50s, I often played at being a teacher, a flight attendant, or a nurse. I couldn’t wait to get my first job. When I graduated from college, I was enthusiastic and idealistic about the difference I could make in the lives of my students.   And I have contributed in positive ways to my students, but often in very small ways rather than the grand happenings we see in movies like Freedom Writers. And as I’ve encountered more and more bureaucratic obstacles at work, I’ve often felt discouraged. My enthusiasm has waned.

SchoolUniform
My first day of school.

And the loss of enthusiasm so many workers feel is no wonder, especially given the amount of time we Americans spend working. About a third of our adult life is spent at work, another third sleeping, and the last third in the routine tasks of living. Those are sobering statistics and all the more reason for us to look for ways that we can be happy and productive in our workplaces. Yet so many of us find ourselves in workplaces that feel soulless and boring. There is an increasing reliance on data to drive all of business’ decisions, and employees are treated like machines that can endlessly go faster and produce more, producing a very harsh work environment. From Amazon to school systems, people feel stressed, tired, and unappreciated. What can workers do in such an atmosphere?

Poet and leadership consultant David Whyte, writing in his book about work Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, has this to say about our needs in the workplace: “The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for acknowledgement, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach….The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

The last line really stops me in my tracks, especially when I am discouraged by institutional problems and practices. I know that I am powerless in the face of the large university system that employees me and seems to be adopting more and more of a cut-throat business mindset rather than creating a nurturing environment for inspiring students and faculty. Where is my heart? What is it that I can give myself to with abandon?

My answer is two-fold. In my classroom, I focus on three ideas. First, I am present and in the moment for my students when I teach. I do this by beginning most classes with a minute of silence to calm and center the class and by banning the use of cell phones and laptops in my classroom. Anther area I focus on is community. I learn everyone’s name in the first couple of days so that students feel welcome and respected. Additionally, I often have the students work with partners or small groups so they get to know their peers and can work in teams. Finally, I design my activities and assignments carefully, working to provide enough structure so that they know what to do and enough freedom that they can express themselves.

In my writing life, I focus on setting small goals that I know I can achieve on a regular basis. Submit to three new publications every month (still working on this one!), write every day, and when I’m feeling especially stuck, use colored pencils to create shapes and images that mirror my feelings. When I do that, I often find the colors and shapes evoke ideas so that I surprise myself with a new poem.

iStock_000004050433Small

I plan to keep working for several more years and am committed to staying positive and happy. I plan to keep writing and teaching. I plan to be happy. I plan to see the beauty of life everywhere. And I hold close to my heart these words from author Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.