“Always keep something beautiful in your heart.”
My husband (of Irish descent) and I traveled to Ireland several times in the last decade. We loved to explore little villages. One day we happened upon a beautiful cemetery on a hill overlooking the village. As we were walking through I took a photo of a tombstone( I don’t remember taking it) but the word “butterfly” ( my spirit animal of
sorts) must have caught my eye. This was 8 years ago. My husband died tragically 11 months ago. A few weeks after he died a photo of him popped up on my phone. My heart was so shattered. I looked to see where it was taken. I clicked on the photo and right next to it was the photo of the tombstone that was inscribed:
“Do not weep at my grave, for I am not there, I’ve a date with a butterfly to dance in the air, I’ll be singing in the sunshine, wild and free , playing tag with the wind while I’m waiting for thee. “
This “message” to me was a true gift. One of many “signs “ I have gotten from my best friend of 41 years. I have memorized this to keep close to my heart. When a group of words come alive and speak to your soul then they are meant to be carried with you on your journey in life.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"Earth's crammed with Heaven.
And every common bush afire with God.
Only those who see it take off their shoes.
The rest sit around and pick blackberries."
I like this because I am reminded that I can't show amazing things to people, if they're not ready to see them. And, that's okay. ☺
My thoughts on memorizing:
There is a subtle yet important difference between memorizing something and learning something by heart. Memorizing being an activity of the intellect, while learning something by heart is, well, engaging the heart. In my experience, asking someone to memorize something strikes fear in them but when asked to learn something by heart a softening happens and they open up to the possibility. This is certainly true for me when faced with the desire to commit an entire work by Chopin to memory. If I approach it from my heart, where the music lives, then it is possible. My intellect alone could never remember all that is being said in the music.
The Wild Geese, 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.
I love reading your emails every Sunday morning. The line I go back to is from David Whyte’s poem “House of Belonging.”
“I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love.”
I have committed the poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, to memory. So many beautiful lines but the section that made me want to memorize the whole of it was this: Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
The image of that wide, wide cloth that we all weave our sorrow into at one point or another, helped me to understand sorrow as both purposeful and communal.
For an evening storytelling concert a friend once asked me if i would recite Shelley's Ozymandias. I think this was perhaps because I had once quoted the two "spoken" lines as part of a story I was telling: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" These are great lines. And I was pleased at the invitation to recite Shelley. But, while I know hundreds of stories, these are remembered in quite a different way from a memorized poem. And i've always aspired to memorize poems but never quite gotten around to devoting the necessary work to it. So here was my opportunity to tick at least one wee box, as it were. And how hard can memorizing 14 lines be, I thought. I'd never memorized more than the opening line and the two above. So i accepted the challenge, as modest as it was. I walked around with that poem in my head for a few weeks. And, truly, it wasn't that hard to memorize. Come the week of the performance, my father, who'd suffered from Parkinson's for some 20 years, had bypass surgery which resulted in a collapsed lung which landed him in intensive care. Visiting him, I had never seen him so frail. We were not close. My father was something of a patriarch (not in a good way). But visiting family in hospital is simple duty. When I saw him (the day I was to perform Ozymandias) he said to me, "It's easier when you visit. Your mother, your sisters worry so much. It's easier with you." A strange and complicated thing to say. He fell asleep. I marked student papers. He woke suddenly, looked at me, and said:
Three little ponies didn’t like their hay.
Said to one another, "Let’s run away.”
The first one said, “I’ll cantor.”
The second one said, “I’ll trot.”
The third one said, “I’ll run, if it’s not too hot.”
So they all ran away with their tails in the air.
But they couldn’t jump the fence,
So they’re all still there.
He'd memorized many little poems in his youth and had often recited them as I was growing up. But i'd never heard that one. And it was delightful. And for a moment I had a glimpse of the boy he'd been. He was, his entire life, powerfully reticent to speak about his childhood and, from him, I learned almost nothing about it. But now I asked him about the poem and, while he couldn't remember where he had learned it, he spoke of his boyhood in Scotland for a bit and then the meds took over. That evening, i mounted the stage to recite Ozymandias. It was an audience filled with friends. I took a breath and found the poem utterly gone from my head. I looked at the host who had invited me there. He knew that my father was in hospital. He looked at me kindly. I took another breath and closed my eyes and could only see the ruin of my father's body, recovering though he was. And then I found the lines and recited the poem though I can't really remember having recited it. I think I did okay. I uttered a word of thanks to Shelley words seemed prescient in that moment. My father is gone now, his suffering ended. But you've reminded me, Pádraig, of his ability, no doubt learned in school as a boy, to memorize poems and wee songs. And though our relationship was troubled, to say the least, I know that my ability to stand before an audience is owed somewhat to him and I will take your reminder and his example as inspiration to memorize more poems.
I'm thinking of an era of my life that I remember now as heartily thriving. I was incanting daily e.e. cummings' I thank You God for most this amazing. It's terribly well known, but I'll offer the words a chair in this conversation:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
As soon as the question was issued, I lept internally to recite it and it's magic unleashed its welcoming effect on me as ever. So, thank you for the reminder.
The Journey by Mary Oliver was my poem of 2022 to memorize. Little by little, it grew from just a few lines in my heart, to the entire poem by the end of the year. One of the greatest gifts I could give myself is to have this poem live in my heart. Working on Wild Geese right now… the first poem I memorized, in the 4th grade, was “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by Wordsworth. From that moment forward my love of daffodils has been steady and enduring. Beautiful post Padraig.
You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great,” Angelou told Bill Moyers in a 1973. This reminds me that I belong to me, and I will not negotiate who I am to fit someone’s idea of how I should be.
Rilke words have mattered often to me:
Let everything happen to you:
Beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Thanks for your words - they are a tonic. I like to remember these lines by Rev Vivian Gruenenfelder, A leaf goes where the wind blows, No choices, Only bowing, To the Infinite Light and Treasure, That is within us all.
It may be a little cliché to quote one of the most well known of all poems, but the last lines of Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" often carry me through when I need to be reminded how "precious" our time is and that productivity for productivity sake is folly.
"Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
- Mary Oliver
It reminds me to love what I love for it's own sake. Walking. Looking. Noticing. Reading. Hearing. Drawing. Napping! Oh the kindness of a good nap! And also at times it says "Just get on with it! You know what to do next! Just begin. The path always leads somewhere and yields something! Even if it's only to bring you to the next path."
I keep the poem Late Fragment by Raymond Carver nearby and in my heart. I loved that poem and read it to my partner and it became his in many ways.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
I started saving poems in a folder labeled simply poems in my email. I would come across one that spoke to me and place them there. I don’t have any idea how many are in it now. I would share them with my partner when I found them. They aren’t organized in any fashion so when I am looking for one, I usually get distracted by another one.
The Layers by Stanley Kunitz... Every word but especially "How shall the heart be reconciled to its great of losses?"
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Emily Dickensons’ 1383
Long Years apart—can make no
Breach a second cannot fill—
The absence of the Witch does not
Invalidate the spell—
The embers of a Thousand Years
Uncovered by the Hand
That fondled them when they were Fire
Will stir and understand—
I memorized this shortly after you read this on Poetry Unbound Padraig. I had recently lost my soulmate then and this poem has helped me hold him close across time and space until we meet again.