January is a confusing month. First you get the sort of upswing of energy that comes from making it through Christmas, and it’s an emotional, albeit somewhat arbitrary fresh start. It ushers in the pledging allegiance to the delusions of New Year’s Resolutions, though if you read my post about resolutions, you know my thoughts on that. But then comes the emotional and psychological downswing of the fact that it’s actually January. Two more months of winter (if you’re lucky), on top of the insanity of the fact that in your least reliable state of mind you have new self-imposed stuff that you feel like you have to do (if you’ve made resolutions), like lose weight, be nicer, be happier, be more organized, work harder, transform your personality so you fit in with the rest of the world, just generally try to be a more acceptable human being, blah, blah, blah. And also, it’s cold and gray.
My personal fantasy about January is that should be declared The Official Month of Freedom. In other words, you don’t have to do ANYTHING. Of course, your kids would still go to school and/or daycare, but every adult would receive vouchers for massages, home food delivery, housecleaning, esp. the crap stuff you never get to like the floorboards, behind the washing machine and dryer, and that one spot behind the toilet that you know you have to get to because your mother-in-law would, but you don’t really have the energy or generational self-respect to try. For a week or two, you would have Staff. Does anyone agree with me on this? Should we start a petition?
Luckily there are things that make winter endurable, and that even contain their own exquisite stillness and beauty.
Anyone who has heard me talk about why poetry is an essential part of being human has heard what I’m about to tell you already, so apologies if there are some of you reading who are hearing it again. But here are the two main reasons, in my opinion, why everyone should care about poetry:
1) There is no part of the human experience that poetry will not touch. The deepest grief, the most exultant joy, and every single mundane, normal life experience in between is a subject for poetry. Freud wrote, “Everywhere I have been, a poet has been there before me.” Poetry reminds us over and over that we are never alone. Think Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Think Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness.” Think e.e. cummings “I thank You God for most this amazing day.”
2) When we choose to write or read poetry, we are choosing connection over isolation. To choose to speak is to choose to believe that you have a voice and that your voice matters. Poetry is human, even and perhaps especially when its subjects are loss, fear, confusion, and pain. Think Rilke’s “Pushing Through.” When pain and confusion is what you have to give, that is what you give. And that matters just as much as anything could. I have worked with so many people with this poem, and they have told me that it was the first time they have ever felt that they were not alone. And of course, poetry is also about love and humor and friendship and being a human being in the world (think Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard”). Poetry speaks to all of it, and it includes everyone.
These the two main reasons are why I am so passionate about sharing poetry in what I hope is an accessible way. It’s also why I feel heartbroken when poetry is taught in a way that feels exclusive and “ivory towerish” to people, which is how I learned it. It took me years to learn to love poetry again (I wrote about that here), and to believe that it could touch and comfort everyone.
One of the things that has happened to me since I started this blog back in March 2010 (almost 20,000 views ago! Can you believe that??), is that people have said to me, “If I learned poetry from you, I would have loved it!” And, “I’m going to pick up a book of poetry this year because you’ve totally inspired me.” And more stuff along those lines. There are no words for me to convey what an honor it is for me to hear things like that. And here are my recommendations if you really want to get into poetry in a non-exclusive way: (1) any book in Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems” series (available on Amazon for pennies), and/or David Whyte’s CD “The Poetry of Self Compassion.” Extraordinary beyond words, and available at www.davidwhyte.com. There are other audio recordings of poems at public libraries, but I really believe that we all need a little help in making our way into the world of poetry.
This poem that I’d like to share with you today does what I believe all good poetry should do: it reminds us that we aren’t alone, and the small, prosaic details of our everyday lives teach us that if we pay attention, miracles happen, no matter who were are. Also, it’s sort of a January poem, when maybe, for whatever reason, we all need to be talked off the edge. Blessings to you, my friends. I’m still here, and thank you for being here too.
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather moments, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another- a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them –
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
from What We Carry