Tag Archives: poetry

to be of use

I am the second to rise from the bed each morning. I hear him stir, but I bury deeper under the covers and return to sleep. Later, he tiptoes in to say goodbye, and I stand at the chilly window and wipe away the moisture on the single pane of glass enough that I can watch him walk to his truck and wave goodbye. I only have a few more minutes to fully awaken before it’s my turn at the morning.

For many months after the loss of my niece, these moments were the hardest of the day for me. There is this feeling of suspension in those few moments before dawn. Time moves at a different speed, and the requirements of the day ahead feel less concrete, more fluid. Grief interrupts this suspension, or maybe it rests in it, thrives in it. It’s a daily relearning of what this day means outside of the sleep world where reality is briefly suspended. Those moments would fill me with dread, and then anxiety. I would watch him walk to his truck and trace the lines of the taillights’ red on the damp glass. I would picture the car that would barrel through the next intersection against that other red light in my vision, hitting his truck near the rear of the bed, spiraling him into the light pole on the corner. I’d shake off that thought, return to the covers, and then picture him drowsy in a warm car, slipping over the white line into another vehicle, and I’d wait for the phone to ring. By the time my own wake up call would sound I would be a ball of taut nerves, unable to unwind into the day ahead. He would send me a note to let me know that he was at his desk and not a ditch, but I already knew that. I understood these things to be irrational, but they were no less vivid to me in the moment.

I sought a new practice for how to handle this anxiety, and I found the most help in a yoga class that I joined. It took me awhile, but I learned the techniques I needed to help me release the tension of the day as I headed off to sleep, and it gave me a structure for greeting the new day without immediately lapsing into that same pattern of anxiety. In time I was able to fully stretch into the next day. The best way I can describe it is this – I feel a sense of gratitude for another day rather than feeling like I narrowly grabbed the day away from an impending, but certain, doom. It isn’t perfect, and I have to work a little harder when his commute involves a plane. I breathe into the nerves and visualize our dinner table, warm and loud, with oft-forgotten manners and occasional spills, but also all three chairs filled, plus that fourth one we drag in from the dining room each night and wedge in around our tiny table.


That practice was working well, but it feels as if it’s lapsing a bit. Each day brings a new onslaught of dread and anxiety and frustration. It feels like punches are coming from a dozen different directions, their delivery is jagged and painful, attacking the fundamental pillars of this country. It’s hard to focus our outrage, our action, our work. Now when I stir in the night everything snaps into focus, and sleep is gone. My mind is running at top speed again, and that slowing practice, that breathing practice, is a challenge.

Last weekend was a whirlwind of activity. Saturday I moved from task to task at lightning speed, and during the in between moments I ran through the notes in my head for a talk I was scheduled to give on Sunday. I spoke them aloud in the car, practicing what I might say. I was confident in the message, but nervous about the delivery, unsure about the vehicle, tentative about my voice. Even now, on the flip side, I still am, although I was graciously welcomed and warmly received. This feels like another transition for me – and transitions aren’t my forte. My instinct is to pull back, to say maybe next time, and observe a little longer.

In the middle of these thoughts on Saturday, I received an email with this poem. It was read at the kickoff of the Educators for Social Justice conference, and my friend sent it out to the group of us buzzing around from event to event that weekend. I pulled into a parking lot and parked my car in the last row and read it a few times.

To be of use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
I’ve read and reread this poem many times this week. I’ve had a full schedule of meetings with various groups outside of work, plus the busyness of work and family and home. That kind of calendar can make me anxious and tired, which can transform those meetings into distractions or disruptions in my mind. So I reframed them. I went into them with the excitement that I get to watch people do the work, to watch them do it well, to watch them do what has to be done, again and again. I submerge myself in it; I listen, I watch, hoping to one day find myself sturdy and capable and of use.

making peace

Making Peace by Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

when there is no peace, there are still words

We were standing on the opposite corner from our house, the girls and I, and they were running towards me on the sidewalk. The older one was winning the race and the younger one was angry and loud about it, stopping in her tracks, arms crossed at her chest, in a petulant display of protest. It should have been the deli I was standing in front of, but since this spot was rooted in my dream, the storefront windows revealed a donut shop, or perhaps a bakery, crowded with people who ignored me when I entered. So I left. The race, now ended in protest, was done, and the older one, not wanting to rein in her pace, shot to her right through the parked cars and across the street.

There was a yellow car traveling at such a high rate of speed that it was just a blur as it rounded the corner and appeared to clip her ankle before speeding off. The closer I moved towards her, the worse her injuries became. As sometimes happens in these kind of nightmare sequences, I was caught in a continuous replay of the events – rewinding back to my corner, watching the car strike her again and again, watching the injuries get worse and worse. I was trying to decide how to keep the younger one contained on the sidewalk, I was trying to scream my husband into attention in the restaurant (that place where everyone ignored me despite my terrified yelling and tears), I was trying to reach her on the ground, but everything moved in slow motion, and besides – the closer I came the more desperate the situation seemed.

I woke up panting and covered in sweat, with an aching throat that thought it had been screaming for hours. I couldn’t shake that dream sequence for ages. I just lay there in the dark and tried to calm my breathing.


Tuesday marked six months since we lost my niece. I read back through some of the things that I wrote around that time, and I realize that I’m still in shock that she’s gone. Her loss doesn’t add up to me. It feels like an odd game of roulette, a mistake – which is completely unnerving to me still. My girls take an extra long nap and wake up with a fever and I hear that black ball tumbling over numbers as the wheel spins.


Just after three today my phone buzzed beside me and I noticed an email from F’s school. They were in lock down mode, the kids were all safe, police were in the vicinity, and they had little information beyond that. In less than half and hour another email came through that the situation was under control, and when M arrived the area was cleared out. Later tonight we learned that a group of high school students were targeted by a shooter on the way home from school. A few hours before I was nervous but patient, waiting for information to trickle in. Now I’m sick to my stomach, thinking about a kid being shot so close to my own kid’s school, thinking about the outdoor places where our little kids play, thinking about how this changes things now. I have to write emails about disaster procedures and increased security at the neighboring school and its vicinity. I have to try and sleep while thinking about retaliation and stray bullets and my four year old.


In between that first email and the second, in those moments where the details weren’t clear, I scanned through my phone looking for messages or clues to what might be happening. And then this poem appeared in my feed, a poem marking the final day of a month of poetry sharing. I read it over and over again, and I read it tonight as I lie in this state of unease.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Poetry is like a prayer to me, each line a reminder to pause and take a breath. When I can’t find peace in sleep or reality or imagination – and there is a little peace in any of those this week – there is still a pause, there are still words, there is still connection with others we’ve never even met.