Poetry – Giving Voice and Words to Life’s Narrow Spots

Gratitude for Grains of Sand
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving – a time to be grateful. Why do we need a special day to focus on gratitude – an essential ingredient of health and well-being? Another topic for another day…
I am grateful for the grains of sand breathed in from a 3-week class entitled: LITERARY MIDWIVES: ASSISTING IN THE DELIVERY OF WORDS AND STORIES, offered at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, MN. The course description defined “literary widwife” as, “Someone who helps another find words or stories, whether for the unspeakable, the challenging or the sublime….” It was about giving birth to voice, words and poems to experiences in life that might be left untold. The class provided an opportunity to listen, reflect and write. The facilitator was poet, editor and grief educator Ted Bowman, a community instructor in Family Education at the University of Minnesota. He was a well equipped and able guide.
“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” ― Barry López
I had previously spent time developing a workshop and speech around the theme of the essential benefit of storytelling in healing. It was my Art of Convening “Final Project” or Case Study. I had not stopped to think of poetry as a part of that telling. I have had a change in perspective. In three weeks, I have actually written three poems about things that I have acknowledged as reality in my life, but not in a poetic form. I have found the experience to be rather profound. You do not need to think my poems are worthy of publication. This is my blog after all…

Poet Patricia Kirkpatrick brought her skills as a “Medical Midwife: Words and Stories for Living With Medical Conditions.” A survivor of successful surgery to remove a nonmalignant brain tumor in 2007, she shared her 4 responses to her diagnosis and treatment: 1. “You’ve got to be kidding!” 2. “Why me?” 3. “This is interesting. I might learn something here.” and 4. “Maybe this is the something bigger I have been looking/waiting for.” In sharing her poems, we were encouraged to see that being witness to someone else’s pain can be the inspiration to write about our own – that stories are contagious. Poetry is meant to be said more than read.
A powerful example came from a poem by prominent Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Here is the poem I wrote in response to the session:
Oh, to be a poet – to find the words – the vocabulary – and put it down succinctly to communicate the message.
Oh, to be a poet – to find the meter and rhythm to convey the depth and breadth of the inevitability of change.
Oh, to be a poet – to find the metaphor and alliteration to assure the reader that there is a way, and only they know the path.
Oh, to be a poet – to find the illustration to communicate the meaning to be found in being present to whatever is taking place in life and allow it to be a teacher.
Oh, to be a poet – a teacher – a pathfinder – a change agent – a messenger.
Oh, I am.

Guest Poet Jim Moore guided us through thinking about bringing voice to “Living With Contradictions and Conundrums.” Words like: ambiguity, paradox and unsolvable were intended to be the food for thought that evening. Reminded that if something is unmentionable, it is inevitably unmanageable; we were encouraged to think of words that we would say if given permission to say anything. Jim said, ”You showed up. That is an indication of your desire to live through what is happening in your life.” Reading and writing poetry is about asking questions. The answer to which is to be human and present in the moment. My most significant messages was: “Things that are ‘unspeakable’, if unspoken, become unmanageable.” How true is that? James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Writing brings you space and perspective – sacred space – not solving, fixing or judging. We do not always know the answers. We are just giving space to breath in the reality of life. Again we were reminded, “When written, read poetry aloud.”

Here is the poem I wrote:
Living Without…
My mind is racing with questions:
How will I peel a carrot?
How will I button my jeans?
How will I write my name?
How will I make french braids in a little girl’s hair?
The mind races with questions.
My heart knew:
I had learned to live without my sister.
I had learned to live with lost dreams.
I had learned to live without my parents.
I would learn that there is more to being a grandmother than braiding hair.
I only needed to slow down and listen.
The heart knows.

Guest poet, essayist and lyricist Michael Dennis Browne brought poetry and comment to “Assisting in the Birth of Beginnings: Advent, Solstice and a New Year” with words like regret, resolution, rebound and renew. Quoting notables like Julian of Norwich, Robert Hayden, Robert Sardello, Wendell Berry and Jack Kornfield, Michael wove a tapestry of images and words that challenged participants “to empty yourselves constantly, leaving room to be filled.” The emptying is cultivating a practice of letting go; being present; not investing in negative thoughts and patterns; and reading and memorizing poetry as a vehicle for the filling. Nothing is certain. We are all in the “middling.” And again the admonition, “Read poetry aloud.”
Here is the poem I wrote during the session:
Before She Came…
Before she came, I only thought of what I would NOT be able to do
I would not be the grandmother I had always thought and dreamed.
Before she came there were preconceived ideas about who she would be,
a baby – my first grandchild – healthy to be sure, growing into whatever she could imagine;
and very tall.
Before she came the preparations were like so many others;
Names selected, crib and diaper service; a room made ready for new life.
Before she came our hopes and dreams were in the realm of “normal.”
And then she came – after having a brain hemorrhage in utero,
spending 5 weeks in the NICU,
shattering all our dreams and expectations of “normal”.
A very special gift from God.
Hemiparesis of her right side.
Together we make a complete pair of hands.

It was a remarkably magical time. The three weeks, two hours each Tuesday, flew by. I was entranced by the published, well-written poetry shared by the presenters and intrigued by my response to the challenge to write. Watch for more poetry.