Mary Oliver got it right, you know:
You need not repent your survival
as if it were a sin.
I know, I know
(believe me, I know):
You feel it is your duty–
your burden, your privilege, your gift–
to rush back into the building full
of beams rotten with flame,
air fouled with smoke,
to pull out as many others as you can.
Maybe it is, for a time.
It can be hard to know
what we owe others.
It can be hard to know
if the cause is lost and collapse
–no matter what we do–
but I’m here to tell you,
one survivor to another:
We never have to burn with it,
our mouths filling with smoke,
our limbs turning to ash.
Imagine your mother,
what she would say if she could see you
in the second-story window,
your mouth a wilting O through a smoky pane.
Imagine what you would say
if it were your child up there,
flames under her feet:
Love yourself as your mother would,
as you love your child.
Not so you can run back into that building,
or into some other one so far gone
it cannot stand.
There will always be buildings on fire.
There will always be others trapped inside.
Your death won’t change that.
Maybe, some other time,
you will be one of them, but
this time, you aren’t.
Don’t waste the gift of your second chance.
Go find yourself a solid structure
and tend to it.
Do your best to keep the exits clear,
And this time, if you smell smoke
and shout fire and no one listens,
if you start beating at sparks with blankets
only to have others accuse you of fanning flames,
get out before you get so turned around
you don’t know which doors lead to closets
and which to stairs.
Let yourself go
love what you love.
It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, when you should stick with something and try to save it, and when you should walk (or run) away from it because nothing you might do will. It is hard to know when quitting or leaving is weakness and when it is strength.
So many times in my life I have been unable to truly see and understand a situation until I’ve been able to get away from it. We become acclimated to what surrounds us, and we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.
When I left classroom teaching in 2009, I had a nearly-finished poetry manuscript, plus a folder with about 20 others that I named “divorce poems.” Since 2011, I may have drafted 2 or 3 other poems. (Maybe. It might have been fewer than that.) I think I have a hard copy of the manuscript in a box somewhere, but I’m not sure where the box might be. The folder was digital and its poems are trapped on the hard drive of some long-discarded laptop.
That’s OK. We can’t save all our darlings, can we?
This week I got to go and browse the shelves of my local library for the first time since March 2020. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t fully feel the missing until I was back there, running my hand along spines back in the stacks. I took a “greatest hits” of Ted Kooser volume home with me, and later, sitting in my living room with late afternoon sun filling the room, I remembered what I first loved about poetry. I remembered that poetry can be made from simple language, about simple things. I remembered that it doesn’t have to be such a big, hard, artistic deal.
I also took a walk with a friend this week, and we talked about survivor guilt. I found myself continuing the conversation in my head long after we finished, and it came out of me as a poem, not prose. What you see above is a draft. It feels a little clunky, too didactic. But this blog, it’s just a notebook. This is what I scribbled in it this week. Words haven’t been coming easily to me lately. There’s a lot of shifting going on. I’ve been happy. The world still feels on fire, and I still care about that, but I’ve been happy, too. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
it’s just past 8:00 on Sunday morning, so I’m going to hit publish on this one. I have food to cook and lessons to plan and some library advocacy work to do. I hope you all have a week that’s good to you.