"For Celan, language was a project to be wrestled with."
It was March 11, 1998. I was in labor; the water had broken and I was 5 centimeters dilated and things were moving along nicely. But then the labor stopped. Nothing changed for several hours. The doctor came in and said if things didn't start moving soon they would have to use some interventions to get the baby out. I was beside myself with dismay and anger, not wanting that. The doctor left. The nurse said, with remarkable gentleness, "is something blocking you?" I said, "well, my mother died." She said, "when did your mother die?" I said, "last week." (In fact, by the calendar, it had been 17 days but in my universe that was the same as "last week.") She said, "oh you poor dear." The inquiry: "is something blocking you?" and "oh you poor dear" were words of perceptivity, and power. This unleashed the weeping I had not yet done, not a single tear up to that minute. The baby came out, whole and beautiful, on a hurricane of sobs not long after. I hold in sacred memory that nurse, whose name I do not remember, and the power that her words-- borne by love-- had to free me to give voice to the grief that had been locked inside my body.
I have been changed by the words of others, for better and worse, but one positive one that comes to mind is when, after years of dealing with the secret of my mother’s alcoholism and being finely attuned to my father’s suffering about this, I called, after discussion with my father, the Alcoholics Anonymous hotline, looking for help. “How old are you?” asked the operator. “Twelve,” I replied. After a long pause, she said these works before ending the conversation that I didn’t believe then but started me thinking, “This is not your problem.”
Every question you ask, Pádraig, seizes me as if i were a fish hooked from the sea. Alas, the first thing that leaps to mind with today's casting is way too many examples of words spoken to me in anger, contempt, paternalist exasperation. And, sadly, they hit me when i was too young or too weak or too naive to bat them aside and they got in me (and sometimes still do) and I changed in unfortunate ways as a result. I've learned better but am still vulnerable. And even now, as i revisit my experience I have to work hard to resist the memory of those many wounds and remember those words that have helped heal my soul or at least soothe it. So... Having just moved to Toronto some time ago, my best friend from Montreal was visiting and, coincidentally, one of our favourite authors was doing a book launch. Eduardo Galeano had just published in English one of his remarkable collections of wee tales, The Book of Embraces. We attended and afterwards, while i usually shy away from the ritual of signing, we lined up. While in line my friend confessed that Galeano was actually friends with her parents with whom he had been neighbours while in exile. He knew the whole family but my friend was the one member he'd not met. When we got to the signing table and introduced ourselves, he was delighted to meet my friend and insisted we join him for drinks afterwards. I was gobsmacked, star-struck, giddy, an utter fan-boy. I tried to act mature but can't be sure I was successful. He was charming, holding court with us like a true professional, kind, funny, charismatic, self-effacing at times. We spoke of writing and his writing and I forget most of what he shared. But i eventually dared a question that had been on my mind for years: "How do you find so many magical things to write about?" This is only slightly less nerdy than asking an author "where do you get your ideas?" Shoot me now, I thought, as i heard myself uttering my question. If you know his work, then you know that he was a master of the short tale, almost all of which are based on historical research or his own experience. He reveals truth and truths like a magician. He looked at me kindly, penetratingly, "ah, you must understand that two or three magical things happen to me every day." And, as if he had just cast a spell, those words entered me and wrapped themselves around my heart and i knew that what he said was true for me as well, and for all of us. His point, i knew, was that he chose to notice. That was over 30 years ago and I have lived every day since with those words as a guide and reminder to notice that magic that is all around us and I have practiced noticing it every day since.
I went into recovery at 19 - and someone in the rooms said, “You never have to be alone again.” That’s held me for almost three decades of sobriety/abstinence.
I was born and raised in an impoverished farming community. My elementary school consisted of five rooms for eight grades. We had no kindergarten or junior high school. There were 12 students in my 'graduating' eighth-grade class. How was it possible that I leapt into a life of healthcare systems and a university?
A high-school English teacher quite improbably saw potential and challenged a mediocre assignment with the phrase, "You are capable of so much more than that." That observation and a few discussions with her over lunch helped me believe that a different personal trajectory might be possible.
However, it wasn't until I started to listen to On Being that I began to believe that it was possible to craft a different type of a civilization (rather than my own individual life) through words. We had neither poetry nor any culture of literature on the farm. The dialogue of many guests began to coalesce into a potentiality of hope - a short of conceptual structure or space where we might imagine together a new civil life - indeed a collaborative life at all - lived in more equitable community with each other and with our planet. Stories shift hearts. We need good stories if we are to have a good future.
A dear friend once said to me, “whatever it is that you are going through, whatever you are feeling and whatever it costs, that is the price of your freedom”. I am still absorbing the impact of those words and trying to live up to their promise. I wish all here the peace and freedom you seek.
When I experienced exclusion from the community that had been home and was taught the words of Mary Oliver's Wild Geese and Journey and someone sang the song " How can anyone every tell you, you are anything less than beautiful, how can anyone ever tell you, you are less than whole..." Those poems and this song are a very part of my soul.
I love so much your sharing and these prompts, as you bring me into a reflective space, a search inside... and so many, many, many instances come to mind. A beautiful journey through memories.... Including one that was difficult, that involved my language and another’s language, and it changed me. I was treating a patient (with acupuncture) who was undergoing chemotherapy for advanced ovarian cancer. She was resting on the treatment table and I was at her feet, needling some point, and casually telling her about the focus of the treatment, and I said quite casually, “because chemo strips away the stomach yin, it really damages it, it....” I don’t even recall what I said next, because what I noticed next was a whimpering, and then I looked towards the face of my patient and saw her crying, and then she erupted with those words: “HOW DARE TALK TO ME LIKE THAT!” I was shocked out of my “I’m a chill acupuncturist doing my thing supporting people in their healing journeys mode”. For a moment I thought the treatment may have induced a “Shen disturbance” (spirit disturbance) in the patient, and her words were nonsensical. Oh. But she continued. “Watch your language!” Though what followed were words that changed me, I cannot recall them verbatim, but she took me to task for using the harsh language of “chemo stripping the stomach yin” and being “damaging” and schooled me on the importance of my language. I initially felt walls of defenses come up “she doesn’t know me! I’m not that person. I would never...” and then flushes of shame as i realized “but Mona. you did.” And eventually getting to “this doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad practitioner or an anything. But it is an invitation to change.” Ultimately, her words, strong as they were, allowed me to reflect - in a more precise way than I had previously - on how I describe to patients my findings and what it is we are doing in the treatment. In this case it could be as simple as describing it as something like “We are nourishing your yin, and supporting your body’s resources to best process the chemotherapy.” Part of the irony was that she, my patient, was a conventional medical doctor, and part of my bias (and rant) had been that MDs can be so thoughtless and careless in how they use language, harming people by how they speak, leaving patients feeling worse simply because of the language they used and how they spoke! And here I was, the acupuncturist, the Chinese medicine holistic practitioner, being “hit over the head” as if by a Zen master’s stick to say, “wake up!” by a conventional MD.
Though I often believe “I really do not respond well to being spoken to in a sharp tone. I just shut down.” In this instance, the words, and tone, and of course context in which this note in the glass bottle was sent forth, actually reached my heart-mind, and changed me.
Pádraig, thank you so much for all your words. I especially am thankful for your reflection on not getting caught up in ideas about your ignorance of what a poem might mean and instead just letting the feeling of it work on you.
I came across this quote by Rilke 30+ years ago and it still grounds me:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
August 2009, three weeks after my younger son, age 26, died of opioid addiction. I was less than shadow, had no words of my own to decipher grief. I began to read Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking" with tears running down my face, thinking "yes, this is what I'm feeling." I began to see how language can help name grief, along with joy, and that is when I began to write poetry.
My first response was recognition; my next was, "what kind of question is that?" As in, of course I'm changed by words, every minute, every day--reading, thinking, talking, listening, writing. And with that thought, I saw myself in a swirl of words, swimming in all the words I love, have always loved since I learned to talk, learned to read--and learned to listen. For me it's all about connection, with others, and, first and foremost now that I'm a lot older and a little wiser, with myself. I've been taken to deep dark places by harsh words fired at me like a weapon. I've been taken to mysterious places by novels, poems, essays, conversations. And heart and soul have soared with the discovery of my own modest talent as a poet. Words to me are a kind of god, infinite, full of colors, sights, sounds, smells, contact-touch. They center, then take me to the deeper place, the silent center where there are no words. Paradoxically, this silent center is the source of all things, including the words I speak or write, and the words I am present for when I read or listen.
I was in first year at university, lonely, knowing almost no one, invited to a dinner party. As the meal was being served, the host, an eccentric English professor at the University, raised a glass, said a few words, closing with just one, “Enjoy!” For me, it was a moment. Something in his tone and inflection allowed that word to go straight to my heart. It was as if I didn’t actually know how to enjoy, how to enjoy anything, and he was telling me it was possible, that it was something I had lost in life, had forgotten. That was over 40 years ago. It was so simple, and yet so profound, the difference since then.
I found Poetry Unbound at a rough time in my life. It was like a lifeboat with every episode. Poetry takes us out of ourselves and brings us into the world of others. Empathy is the greatest comfort.
I am in words and changed by words every day! I am finding it hard to narrow down which words to share.
So the beautiful words of messages in a bottle prompt me to think of my mother in law, who recently died after living many years in dementia. She could no longer share utterances that no one else could comprehend. Speaking to her was like throwing words in an empty bottle and hoping at least some of the feelings reached her. We will not know, but must hope that the words did reach her.
'there is nothing wrong with you' words by Cheri Huber
I have a folder on my computer desktop that contains two poems, Osip Mandelstam's "And I Was Alive" and your poèm Padraig, "The Facts of Life." I try to listen to them every morning. Mandelstam's poem reminds me to see the Beauty that exists even in fhe face of the ugliness and turmoil that often surround us and your poem i think of as a blueprint for living: Loving!