Survivor Guilt

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.

Save yourself. 

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,
Extinguishers near. 

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.

11 thoughts on “Survivor Guilt

    • Rita says:

      I know we’ve shared our common admiration of Kooser before. Maybe we should make a fan club? 🙂 I’m realizing all my favorite poets are the plainspoken kind.

      • Kate says:

        Thank you for sharing this. I left a comment last week but I think it must have been absorbed into the ether.

        I love coming here every Sunday. I like your notebook and the thoughts you share. I like that you are happy. I like knowing the world can be on fire and we can still be happy. I’m on the other end of that teeter totter right now but I know I won’t always be here and there is both a vicarious joy and a hope that comes from other people surviving well (maybe even thriving).

        Since the previous comment was lost – I will take some time here to say I hope you and Daisy are getting plenty of time to snuggles. She’s so sweet and I know beloved.

        • Rita says:

          My grandpa used to like to say, “This too shall pass.” I remind myself of that not only when I’m sad/frustrated/hurt, but also when I’m happy. Not matter what is, it can never stay. We are resilient beings. I’m glad this notebook gives you something useful for what this time is right now for you.

          Thank you for the Daisy hope. She is really kind of salty-sweet. The rain returned this weekend (first time we’ve had more than an inch since January!), so apparently it is poop-in-the-house season. Who can blame her? I wouldn’t want to poop in the rain, either. She is beloved, though. She snuggled beside me as I wrote this post. 🙂

  1. Omeica Hudson says:

    I feel like you were looking me straight in the eyes and talking to me. I love you! I love this piece and I love poetry for the same reasons you do.

  2. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    That poem is wonderful. I felt as if it had been written specifically for me. I’m sure many other individuals feel the same way. 🙂
    I look forward to reading your posts each week. I feel as if I’m reading a friend’s diary or journal. I wish more people saw the value in keeping a personal blog. The value to their own mental health, I should say.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Podcast #18- Mixed Tapes/Talking to Plants/ Giving My Dogs VoicesMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’ve already revised the poem some since I hit Publish. 🙂 But thank you. I know blogging isn’t for everyone, and I’m thankful for the personal ones that I follow.

  3. Carla says:

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter; I began reading you at your blog This Sorta Old Life! After all these years I feel the need to come out of the woodwork and say, even though I don’t know you personally, I am stupid happy you and Cane married; the two of you have always seemed meant to be. I also want to say I adore your sense of home design and enjoy your writings and photos of such things. Congratulations on your new season of life!

    This post brought to mind something I heard years ago – you know it’s time to move on when you care more than the person (institution, situation, etc…) you’re trying to help. That thought is probably not 100% true, but I’ve found it’s at least a good filter. Your poem struck at my heart; thank you for sharing.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Carla! I’m always tickled when someone says they’ve been reading for a long time and this is the first time they’ve commented. 🙂 I’m pretty stupid-happy, too. Thank you for the kind words.

      I think I’m in agreement with you about that idea; I can see some truth in it, but also that it’s probably not the whole truth. I think now that I need to ask myself if my help is really needed/wanted, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person (etc.) doesn’t care, but maybe that we care about different things. That helps me depersonalize, if that makes sense?

      Ah, we people can be complicated. Except for when we’re really simple. 🙂

  4. TD says:

    Hi Rita. I appreciate your blog so much. I am able to learn from reading what you write about and your posts sometimes gives me a good way to work through my own life-issues. I read this post on Sunday morning. It has been circling in my mind all week. I went back to re-read your post, then I took a slow short walk with Yorkie to the end of the block and back home.

    You wrote: “…we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.” I find this to be true for me as well.

    I understand that there’s a lot of shifting going on and that you have found a happy space with a partner building a home life & meaningful work life. I feel happiness knowing you feel happy. It’s contagious! 😊

    Yes, there is just too much despair in the world that it is difficult to process what is really happening and how little that I feel I can personally do to make earth and human life the best for all. I have no answers.

    I think focusing to manage survival of my own small life on this tiny dust particle on the planet is perhaps the best I am able to offer and at times even that much I have self-doubt.

    Yorkie and I send Daisy and yours more doggo snuggles of comfort and love.

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