resting in poetry, for maya angelou

I was thinking how people I hold as eternal keep dying – I don’t know I believe this till they pass – when the news came: you so constantly here are gone.

You were the first poet where I knew your name, your creviced smile, when I recited you. Phenomenal, phenomenal – you lived what it is to be a phenom, to claim it as radical truth amongst cowardice and conditioning.

You loved us word and flesh, edge and marrow, pleasure and secret, with your thunderous mouth and grandiose spirit and such elegance.

In the midst of battle you let us rest in poetry, in your arms, in your faith that Yes, we were precious.

You didn’t whisper, nor did you shout, but measured each word as an ode to our humanity. You were a movement, a poet, a black woman saying now is the time:
To be love
To be beauty
To be black
To be free

Where you have gone I cannot hear, what you have left I cannot measure. I thank you for living your beautiful truth all these short and transformational eighty six years.

(Written in tears in a bus through Kentucky)

go on sheddy

last night i found out that a young member of my extended community has passed on. her name is sheddy.

she was in the car when i got scooped from the airport on my first visit to detroit, and in the car at 6am in the morning with breakfast pastries when i got picked up and taken back to the airport after working with detroit summer for two days and beginning my relationship with this city.

my first impression of her was sweetness and easy sensuality – it was undeniable, just in her nature. over the years our paths crossed many times because she was a beloved of people i loved, all of whom just wanted more of her. i came to feel the same way. with time i learned that she was sweet, supportive and humble. her presence was powerful.

i grieve her short life – she’d just turned 28 in february.

i am sitting with the ways grief is more and more public these days, and thus more collective, maybe faster. it now feels like the news of a death has to move so quickly to try and reach people before it becomes a part of the internet. and grief, by it’s nature, is an incomprehensible emotion which renders words useless, empty. the life you long for is outside of the words, and what you can speak to is the absence, the great absence. that is exacerbated on a facebook feed. the individual words feel so small against what has happened.

and yet…i am glad there is a place to turn to for a digital shiva for sheddy, which facebook has been for other griefs over the past couple of years. it does feel oddly comforting, with such a broad network of people now woven and weaving together, to sit in that wider web of those changed in some way by the loss, to see how much love flowed into her life, to comfort each other, read and tell stories, share pictures.

it is a complex, muted sadness, that which comes from being touched briefly by a powerful soul. i am grateful sheddy touched my life, and i hope she is able to go on with only peace.

Home is Here (repost of Autumn Brown)

(i wanted to share this gorgeous post with you all. as most of you know i spend a week of each month with my sister and her growing family in rural minnesota. here, autumn brown offers a glimpse into the living, rooting, healing and learning happening there.)

Hello good people!

And welcome spring! Maybe you noticed: it’s been awhile since I’ve sent a newsletter. For those of you who follow my writing, I apologize for the long delay. The last seven months I have been in a sort of hibernation, learning the ropes and loving the challenge of my still-quite-new job leading a young non-profit; stoking the fire in the wood burning furnace that heated my new home in the woods all winter long; and growing a new child (Mairead Irene was born on January 19th, at home in a tub, assisted by my sister, my midwife, my husband, and my mother). I was inwardly focused on growth and expansion, and I gave myself the space to fall inward, without commentary.

And as the winter wore on, I felt that my emotional well being was quite literally tested by the weather. Several snows came during the month of April; and yes, that is strange even for Minnesota. I began to have an actual, quite irrational fear that spring would never come.

And then it arrived. Yesterday I walked barefoot between long dead leaves, new grass, and sponges of melting snow, learning the outdoor landscape of my new home, a place I have never been in the spring. We are discovering that our house is surrounded by a carpet of tulips and crocuses that are just beginning to peek through the dirt. We planted our first trees: White spruce, scotch pine, and chokeberry. Mairead had her first taste of full sun, and loved it. Siobhan and Finn ran around naked, covering themselves in mud, and working hard with their father and grandfather to hang a bat box in the tree near our pond to attract mosquito eaters. We are preparing our garden, eager to get our seedlings into the ground: they grow taller every day and begin to smell like tomatoes and peppers.

Today I have that absolute sense of rebirth that I can only credit to having spent a winter so close to the land, and at the mercy of the physical climate. Surrounded by the silence of snow and dormant life, now the sounds of life return to our woods, and I truly feel them to be ours.

So I write to you now from a place of joyful understanding. I can feel myself in the balance, and always this is my experience after giving birth (I can really say “always” now, since it has been true three times). After giving birth, I become keenly aware of my own death and the future deaths of everyone I love, but I am less and less cowed by it. Death is just what is, in the same way that life is just what is. Life is painful and immeasurably sad, and then it is pleasure, release, the taste of boundlessness. Life is fear and not knowing, and then it is sudden immediate knowing. Life is hard. And then it’s not.

What I am feeling now can only be expressed as gratitude, though there is something deeper too. Something this army brat has only ever felt hints of before, but is coming closer each day to knowing: an actual place called home. Home for me has always been migrating. Home is where my family is, or home is where I’ve lived the longest. But for home to be an actual place, a piece of land with it’s own memory – that is a kind of magic I have never experienced. So here it is. My home, all around me. Home is here.

wisdom on death

my friend’s son was killed in a motorcycle accident this past weekend, while i was off celebrating love. another good friend, marilyn clement, a warrior in the fight for universal health care from her apartment in manhattan (i sat on her Healthcare-Now board for years!), passed last week – surrounded by family. in the wake of both losses, friends have poured forth all of their wisdom and learning on death, and i wanted to offer it here:

Death Is Nothing At All

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

Death Poem by Henry Scott Holland ~ 1847-1918
Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral ~ London. UK written on the eve of his death.

Commitment prayer:

I love you to the end of our lives and, after that, forever.

Do not stand by my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am a diamond glint on the snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
I am the fleeting bird up in the sky
I do not want to see you cry.
I am the sweet smells of the early spring
I will be with you when you laugh and sing.
For I am you and you are me
An in your hearts I shall always be.
Found in an In Memoriam, but not sure of original source

Look to this day for it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course, lie all the verities and realities of your existence;
the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision,
but today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore to this day. Such is the salutation of the dawn.
A Sufi poem, from John Morse’s wake

“We would ask now of Death.”

And he said:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the sheered not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

– On Death, from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (which i read at the beginning of each new year)

Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet. Let it not be a death but completeness. Let love melt into memory and pain into songs. Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest. Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night. Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence. I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way. ~Rabindranath Tagore