“In the middle of the road of my life / I awoke in the dark wood / where the true way was wholly lost”Dante
Perfect storms can arrive at any time and right in the middle of our lives. It doesn’t make us special or different, only more fully initiated into the family of things.
For me, my mid-thirties delivered a sequence of loss at a level more fierce than I had ever experienced before. Within months my mother died, my marriage ended, and the company I helped to start fell apart.
I began having a recurring dream of falling down a dark mine shaft backwards with nothing to grab or break my fall. For over a year, all I could manage was a kind of barely limping along life.
That wise saying “This too shall pass,” which normally comforts – seemed increasingly a cruel joke.
Wonderfully it wasn’t!
Things slowly began to shift. For each great loss, there seemed to be an equally great arriving. Two such arrivings were poetry and gratefulness practice, each with its own magnificence and support for the other.
In fact, to speak about the heart of gratefulness is to speak about the wholeness that grateful practice brings. And to speak of wholeness is already an invitation to bring the great poets and poems into our lives. For great poems help us re–member and re-connect ourselves to ourselves, to others, and to the great other.
My first magical experience with this kind of connective tissue poetry came at the able hands of poet-pediatrician, William Carlos Williams who wrote these stunning words inside a long poem called “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:”
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I call what I contracted that evening, Adult Onset Poetry Syndrome, and I have gratefully given up all hope of a cure.
How could anyone assign to poetry such a critical and lofty purpose? Was he kidding? Was this the same poetry with which well-meaning teachers had bored and tortured me in my teens? I had no idea, but I was determined to find out.
In fact, when I first heard these words from Williams spoken over twenty years ago by friend and great poet in his own right, David Whyte, I knew something different was going on. Some tectonic plate beneath me moved. Truth is, as I heard the words being so skillfully spoken, they felt as if they were coming from deep inside my body.
This poem and others I heard that night were rearranging my own felt sense of myself. A feeling I would later recognize as remembering myself whole again.
I call what I contracted that evening, Adult Onset Poetry Syndrome, and I have gratefully given up all hope of a cure. If anything, I’ve become an infectious carrier because so many of the poems that I’ve discovered, read and written over the years have become tools for inviting more gratefulness and therefore wholeness into my life.
Brother David eloquently speaks of a simple tool that can form the infrastructure of a grateful living practice. It’s called: Stop. Look. Go. Let me share with you how I have enhanced this practice for myself using poetry.
Stop: This first step is simply to halt our often over-subscribed, over-burdened and uber-distracted lives…even for a few seconds. This provides an opening to realize that every moment we have or will ever have is truly a given moment. A gift. And that further, the gift within the gift of each moment is the opportunity to enjoy, learn and use each moment more wisely. And that even the difficult and unwanted perfect storm events in our lives can become opportunities to learn, grow and get stronger.
The trick is to place little pattern interrupters (aka, stop signs) where we will see and use them to pause. For example, I might use a few short lines of a wonderful poem called “Lost” by David Wagoner:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here…
Instantly our normal way of seeing the world is stopped, as we are stopped. I keep handy the whole poem for those times when I need a full resuscitation. But by then these few lines on a sticky note have done their stop-sign work. They have interrupted the flow of my day so my body, mind and heart can all wonderfully reconnect. It is such a delicious feeling to once again, belong to our selves, to others and to the world.
Look: The second step is to open my eyes, ears, nose and every other sense I can. For this step I have many choices, but one of my favorites is a short little poem by Emily Dickinson:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
This poem opens my ears to the power of words. After all, the language I use either connects or alienates. I want my words to connect, serve and heal.
Go: Our third and last step is to take our more centered and calm feeling of gratefulness out into the world to help make even a small difference. Again, there are many choices, but most times all I really need are a few lines to get me going in a new direction. For example, I often use these few words from “The Summer Day” by poet, Mary Oliver for the nudge I need:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
And so I now ask you the same beautiful and fierce question:
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?