I write to you from a delicious and rare moment in my own home. Since I last wrote I’ve breathed the wave spew of Ho’okena Bay, the antiseptic vapors of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, the scent of night jasmine on the cliffs of Esalen, and the sweet blow of horse-breath on the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana (see photo by Cris Mulvey). I’m perpetually stunned and grateful for the outer journeys I take and the inner journeys — my own and others’ — that I get to serve on the way.
Today California spring worked its seduction upon me, and I managed to tear myself away from this computer screen to hike up the mountain (well, hill really) across the street from my house. Though the separation from my inbox always requires an act of will, as soon as I set foot on the path I am swooning in the feast of filtered light playing over my skin, bluebelly lizards staring me down as long as they dare, Mount Tamalpais presiding over the horizon.
These last months have found me even more on the ‘road’ than I’d planned. Like so many in my generation, I’ve entered the chapter of the autobiography in which, if the heroine happens to have parents that are not taken by disease or accident early in life, she is called to meet the blessings and heartbreak of watching the legions of incapacity make their slow march through the bodies of her loved ones. For me, it is a fierce gift to practice “The Art of Losing,” step-by-poignant step. Elizabeth Bishop says, tongue in cheek I think, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master. / So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is not a disaster.” In Saved by a Poem, I write of how my friend Judith learned this poem by heart as she sat by the bedside of her dying husband:
As the words worked their way more and more deeply into her memory, they opened her—to the grief and, yes, even the humor of being with her partner of 40 years as he lost his capacities, one by one. She told me she clung to this poem for solace during the days just before and after John’s death. “You know, underneath those seemingly lighthearted words there is unspoken pain,” she said. “That is what made it so powerful for me.” And the beauty of the villanelle form of the poem, with its particular music of rhymes and repetitions, carried her as she lived, day by day, the poignant truth of the last stanza:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The day after I returned from leading the annual Beyond Words retreat with cellist Jami Sieber in Hawaii, I was called to the East Coast to help my 93-year old father through an illness. As I sat by his bedside in the hospital, researching hospices and learning the name of a new nurse every eight hours, I chose a different poem to learn. I turned to “Relax” by Ellen Bass to help me bring humor and perspective to my predicament. After many weeks. my father had a miraculous recovery. I walked into the next pages of my life more tender, sober and in wonder at how the unfurling of the story seems to liberate, even through heartbreak.
The poem helped a lot. Here it is:
Relax by Ellen Bass
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat –
the one you never really liked — will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours for a month.
Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
your refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up — drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice — one white, one black — scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
Thank you for your companionship among the tigers and strawberries,