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Caution: Poetry at Work

September: Transitions

September 21

As I prepare this posting, our world is facing violence, war, distrust, and tensions that erupt in the worst behavior that human beings carry within them. The poem I share this week does not address or solve any of those urgent problems; it is a poem about making time to write, even in the midst of so much need. There are wonderful models of poets whose writing grapples with the most challenging issues of our time, whose advocacy comes through their poetry. Their work seems unquestionably worthwhile to me, and I doubt that anyone would question the time they devote to their writing. When a poem comes from a more personal landscape, as this one does, or captures a moment of joy, or expresses something unrelated to politics or social justice or human drama, it can seem optional, unnecessary, and making time to write can be hard to justify. But writing poetry can nourish and enlighten us in the personal sphere, helping us prepare to meet the needs of the world more courageously and fully. Writing can help especially when it brings to the surface expectations or assumptions that operate subconsciously. Writing this poem helped me see an ideal of motherhood I had internalized, without being aware of it, a constant measure of my inevitable failure. Devoting time to the poem made the sense of failure worse in a way (I was even further from the ideal described here because I took time to write), but working through the poem helped me realize that not writing the poem would not bring me much closer to the ideal. Being a perfect whatever is always out of reach. Releasing myself from this expectation was a necessary step in my maturity as a parent, and learning to make time for what sustained me amidst the flurry of tasks was extremely important.

Writing and cookingThe Good Mother's Reward

In the time it takes to write this poem
I could have opened the new packs of diapers,
stacked them neatly, strategically.
I could have folded all that laundry, too --
shirts, socks, training pants, onesies, tights, booties, hats.
I could have made it all ready for the frenzied morning grab.

I could have prepared a dinner of
freshly cooked vegetables packed with vitamins
bits of cheese cut in the shape of their names
fruit arranged in a smiley face and
sandwiches cut into triangles (not squares)
and even a cookie as a special treat.

I could have baked the cookies --
the house after daycare would have smelled
the way my grandmother's did,
dessert still warm on a gently perspiring plate
glass of milk confident, proud beside it,
two percent or maybe even whole.

I could have pressed my apron for the baking --
I know I could have found it crumpled in a drawer
and washed and ironed it, starched and crisp.
I could have added a ruffle, too, assuming I could find
my sewing machine, still in a box in the basement.
I could have made room among the cartons and the chaos.

I could have followed the seductive trail of motherhood
back to its subterranean storage where the perfect mother waits.
I see her sigh at me now, fold her plump arms over her ample waist
and then, just before the word from the sponsor,
she smiles that beatific all-forgiving smile
and rumples my hair with a slightly floury hand.

My own hand signals the ultimate laborsaving device to print
as I race to the freezer to see what's for dinner.
Pizza and guilt, and a poem as my just desserts.
      -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think about your own strategies for making time to write, knowing that what works for others may not work for you. If you wish that you wrote more, experiment with different writing schedules, locations, goals and strategies to share work and receive support from other writers. If the quandary of the ideal expressed in this poem resonated with you, consider whether an ideal may be helping and/or hindering your work. Draft a poem or lyrical prose passage where you explore the ideals against which you measure success - as the perfect writer, friend, student, athlete, daughter, brother, employee, partner, citizen…. What aspects of the ideal draw you forward, giving you strength and inspiring further effort? Is there any part of the image that needs to be updated, refined or retired?

September 7

EclipseToday we celebrate the transition of "Caution: Poetry at Work." This year it will be the creation of Kyhl Lyndgaard and the tutors who make up the Writing Centers at Saint Ben's and Saint John's. Karen Erickson and I are delighted that Kyhl and his tutors will give the new light of their creativity to this site, devoted to the good work of reading and writing poetry. We're also pleased that they asked each of us to write one last poem to inaugurate the second year.

Speaking of transitions, some of you may have been lucky enough to witness the total eclipse of the sun on August 21, 2017. An eclipse is a spectacular transition from light to darkness and back to light, as the moon follows its leisurely orbit between Earth and sun. The moon's shadow gradually blocks out the sun's light until even a cloudless day turns into a moonless, starless night. As the moon continues in its path, oblivious of the awestruck watchers on Earth, light and warmth gradually reappear, as if it were the first day of creation.

In truth, this transition from light to darkness to light happens every evening and every morning without fail. But it might take an eclipse to make us notice this ordinary miracle and learn to love both day and night, darkness and light. In Salzburg, Austria, a total eclipse happened in 1999. When the light returned, instead of hearing a Mozart tune there in Mozart's birthplace, the visitors heard Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" in praise of "the bright blessed day [and] the dark sacred night."

All transitions are, at least at the beginning, movement from light to the darkness of the unknown, untried - birth, the first month of college, new parenthood, the beginning of a new job, the transition from vigorous health to fragility. My poem this week celebrates "the dazzling darkness" life asks us to embrace.

In the Dazzling Dark

There is in God--some say--
A deep but dazzling darkness. . . .
                --Henry Vaughan

In the deep but dazzling darkness
swim big-eyed fish in ocean caves no light has ever reached.

And all the shy animals at home only in darkness:
bats asleep in caves during the day, floating silently alive at night,
guided by unerring radar,
black panthers with green eyes;

And owls calling "Who? Who?" Listening, gazing into the dark, we ask the questions
that sleep during the day but rise up on strong wings at night: "Who am I?" "Who is my
neighbor?" "Who, oh who, are you my God?"

In dark Earth the roots of ancient sequoias secretly reach out and clasp the long-
fingered roots of neighboring trees, sharing food, helping each other stay alive through
drought and fire, steadying the ground they need to grow.

In the glare of endless day, stars, dreams, and fireflies flicker out and fade.
They're at home only in the velvet black of night.

So too the parts of each of us that find shelter in darkness-
fears, dreams, hopes, sorrows, gladness too fragile and shy to bear the light of day.
Only in the dark do we know ourselves, purely and without distraction.

In the pulsing darkness of the hive, bees are making honey and the wax for Easter
candles that need chapel darkness to glow,
as imagination glows in the dark hives of our brains.

In the darkness of our mother's womb God knits each of us into an intricate pattern,
then knits us into herself. For nine months babies, their eyes sealed shut, navigate by
touch, smell, and sound in that blood-rich darkness before they swim toward light
and all its blooming wonders

The deep but dazzling darkness of God is a womb in whose shelter lives all that was, is,
and still might be-
deep space where God is creating new worlds, new wonders.
The future, the moment after this one, intensely alive but still and always in shadow.

In the deep but dazzling darkness of God is the ocean of faith, the darkest virtue,
where we trade certainty for possibility.

When we dare go into our undiscovered selves
our roots grow toward each other, entwining, feeding, supporting, like ancient trees.
And we grow together toward God, who at every moment, is growing deep
underground toward us, leading us to unfathomable reaches of justice, mercy, and joy.

     --Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing:
Think of a time when you made an abrupt transition from light to darkness (such as entering a bat cave) or from darkness to light (such as waking up to a bright light shining in your eyes.) Try to describe the experience. With sight all but useless, did your other senses take up the work of sensing? As you write, see if this experience becomes a metaphor for transitions in feelings, thoughts, or insights.

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