This post is a little long but I dedicate it to all the moms who have walked and continue to walk beside me and who keep me company along the way.
In a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost wrote:
A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.
I discovered poetry late in life. As a teen and as a child, I knew of poems. The “Roses are Red” kind. The ones that rhyme. I remember memorizing “The Messy Room” by Shel Silverstein for school and became enamored with his poetry and its strange absurdity mixed with common sense. (Common sense for a kid).
Then I found myself in my early 30s overwhelmed at home. I was underwater and couldn’t breathe as a mom of many little people. Looking back, I was severely sleep deprived for at least a decade, starting in my twenties.
Every day was the same insanity.
Feed, change, put to sleep, clean, repeat. Try not to run away.
And good God, the laundry.
The monotony and repetition of my days felt stifling. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get into a routine of at least showering first thing in the morning to put a new set of clothes on but the futility of it all felt even worse.
Was it just me that did not find this miracle of motherhood enchanting and magical? Where was the magic in poop smeared on the walls and a never ending spilt bowl of rice on the floor? (RICE?!).
Sure there were cute moments. But there was also drudgery.
In those days, not many moms were brave enough to tell the truth of what we were craving – walks in the woods alone, coffee dates where we could put on a little lipstick and pretend to have important things to talk about, or simply create art all day and make love all night. This semblance of being “a civilized woman” was the stuff of my daydreams.
I used to send a message to my friend at around 4:00pm – the witching hour. She is a mom of five too. I would tell her that I was sitting by the window having my pretend brandy and my pretend cigarette.
One day I was at one of my two favorite places to take the kids where I could wander aimlessly while they preoccupied themselves – the library. (The other place was our favourite grocery store where we would go when it was empty and the kids could run the aisles and no one cared.)
As I roamed the library, carrying the latest child in the wrap, bargaining with the gods of sleep to grant my wish so I could sit for a moment, a book caught my eye. Its spine stood out and so did its title. I picked it off the shelf and turned to the first page and the bottom half of the page contained these words:
I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was
for a little while.
I want to say that it took my breath away but it actually gave me my breath back. I gasped and took in a full breath air for the first time in maybe a dozen years. How could this arrangement of words become the balm that I didn’t know existed?
This excerpt is from the poem “Dogfish” by Mary Oliver. It can be found in her selection of poems in the book Dream Work .
Needless to say I borrowed that book from the library. I carried the book around the house, sometimes standing and reading a poem while eating the leftovers I scraped from the kid’s plates.
And THE POEM that brought me to my knees, that shone a light onto the answer ofwhy the fuck I am getting up every morning to do this WORK,why I am standing here right now waiting for the muffins to finish in the oven to pack up for our weekly excursion into the woods in winter with all five of my children, and how can I love any of this?:
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
This. And so many more poems. After I digested Dream Work, I couldn’t wait to go to the library to find more of her poetry books, to name a few:
House of Light
A Thousand Mornings
With Ms. Oliver as my oracle, my witness, my confessional, my reflection, I shifted my view of my life. One line in one of her poems became my mandate for parenting and especially homeschooling.
There is only one question: how to love this world.”
(See below for the poem in its entirety.)
After this journey with Mary Oliver, I went on others with Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, David Whyte, John O’Donohue, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walt (mothereffing) Whitman, and more.
It was Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection of poetry in Book of Hours that I randomly found at the library that helped me connect the dots to create my own Book of Hours Project that changed the course of my life.
As I integrated poetry in my life, I noticed that all the moms in my life were poets, including that one who literally was a beautiful poet (my pretend brandy and pretend cigarette friend). Taking the essence and turning into what we could because we couldn’t bear the length or drama of a life of prose. A poetic life was more forgiving. Like Mary Oliver says in her book of essays, Upstream:
“…the poem is a temple – or a green field – a place to enter, and in which to feel…I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak – to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed.”
As mothers, we keep each other company as we do everything that is needed when it is needed for our families. We are poems.
Pick one or more…
- Copy one or more poems today.
- Paint with abandon.
- What is your relationship to poetry?
- Discover a new poet today and read a poem. (You can pick one of the above poets I have mentioned if you don’t know where to begin.)
- Share a poem that moves you right now with someone.
- Paint with abandon.
by Mary Oliver
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring
down the mountain.
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge
to sharpen her claws against
of the trees.
my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her –
her white teeth,
her perfect love.