On a different day

“We live in a strange time, so the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple. Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.”

– George Saunders, in his Man Booker prize acceptance (2017)

I don’t know about you, but I process confusion by getting my ass into a chair and my pencil onto a page. So when the video of the young man staring down the Native Elder surfaced, I watched it and paid close attention to the emotions that rose to the surface in my body. I didn’t respond on social media. In fact, it didn’t take too long for me to stop looking at social media altogether on the issue. I wrote about it in my notebook.

Then the various interpretations of the episode slowly came to light and the stark categories began to soften at the edges. I watched how these new stories unfolded. I read responses. I paid close attention to what my body was telling me. I wrote about it in my notebook.

Of course there was nuance. Of course things were not a simple as they were portrayed at first. No situation ever is. But I had been paying attention to my body, and my body knew the facial expression on the young man from the Catholic school. When I saw the scrap of video in which he stood very close to the older Native man, when I saw that smirk, my chest constricted, I flushed. Because I recognized it. I recognized it as a someone who attended, for one year, a small Catholic high school in the deep south. I recognized it as a former high school teacher.

I recognized the privilege that allows that kind of facial expression. That kind of ability to stand so close to a Native Elder and not give him enough room or respect. The freedom from expected consequences that some segments of our society enjoy, while others are persecuted harshly. 

Was there more going on there? Sure. There always is. There were many ways that the situation could have been handled that would have been kinder, more open, more generous. I kept wondering, where were the adults that could have helped those young men contextualize the situation? Where were the chaperones that could have prevented that ugly scene and transformed it into a chance for those young men and that Native Elder to truly meet? There was such an opportunity for recognizing the humanity in each other that was lost. And doubly lost.

When I taught high school, I spent a lot of time choosing novels that I hoped would expand my students’ empathy, help them walk in another’s life for awhile, break down some of the barriers. That’s what literature and poetry does best, it shows us how it is to be another person. I remember how hard it was for my students in a small town in Alaska to really put themselves into the place of Ishmeal Beah in A Long Way Gone or Amir in The Kite Runner. But when they succeeded, the transformation was permanent. They could not go back to their own small lives without carrying some of the lives of other people who were different than them…. and the same as them.

When I write, I try to offer my reader that same chance to step into the poem. “Did you lose someone to Alzheimer’s? Was it like this?” I offered in Every Atom. “Are you lost and looking for the way some god might be all around you? Does it feel this way?” I wondered in Boundaries. 

Recently, I look at my new poems and think I am asking, “Do you love the world? Are you open to the way the crow flies across the cold sand? Are you willing to listen for the soft compression of wings on air?” 

“Are you ready to have faith that what you call other is only you on a different day?”

One wild and precious life

Yesterday, the news that Mary Oliver had died rippled outward on social media. My Facebook timeline was filled with Oliver’s poetry, with her beautiful, unadorned face. Like others, I noticed that many of the articles being hastily thrown together seemed to omit the great love of her life, Molly Malone Cook. I also noticed that some of the snark that followed Mary Oliver around in life was continuing after her passing.

Many of the people who I saw mourning Oliver’s passing yesterday were not members of capital P Po-Biz. They were just folks who ran across a handful of Mary’s poems when they needed a lifeline, when they needed a poem that said you are part of this world, your life is precious. These people felt seen by Mary Oliver. They carried her poems on folded-soft paper in their wallets, taped them to their computer monitors, and probably never bought a copy of one of her books.

Mary Oliver had little to do with Po-Biz. I always appreciated that about her. She wanted to be outside in the wild wind more than she wanted to stand in front of adoring crowds. A goodly number of the Po-Biz world looked down their noses at Mary Oliver’s work. Some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman, a lesbian, a person who didn’t often go to glitzy parties. They said she was soft, sappy, a (god-forbid) nature poet.

Yesterday, I looked at the world a little differently because of Mary Oliver’s passing. Yes, the world felt less observed, as if a spark of love for it had guttered. But also, I thought of all the times I was warned off writing about the natural world. Poems I’ve written about trees have been held up in workshop to ridicule. Even folks in the “eco-poetry” world have suggested that my poems need more of a call to action about the environmental crisis. These are the same folks who dismissed Oliver.

I’m not arguing that everything Mary Oliver wrote was genius. But, I am beginning to connect the dots in the denigration of women (soft, gentle, spiritual, accessible, adjectives used to signify not serious), the destruction and desacralization of the natural world, and some of the poetry that is lauded in our current Po-Biz culture. And I am thinking deeply about the (at this moment) 601 people who shared the graphic I made of Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” on social media. How deeply we need to be reminded of astonishment, of our duty (dare I say sacred?) to share with each other what will buoy.

Yesterday, the sun was still behind the mountains across Kachemak Bay from where I live when news of Mary Oliver’s death came across the internet. But where it would rise, there was a pillar of red light. As I stood there, unashamedly crying, I wondered if it might just be a beacon. A welcome to the radiance of what comes next for Mary Oliver, a welcome party thrown by the poet Eva Saulitis, who passed three years ago on January 16, and the poet William Stafford, whose birthday was yesterday and who has been gone now 26(!) years. These great spirits who put down words that we get to keep. That we get to remember. That we can love, even if we don’t have an MFA. That we can carry forward.

And that is a mighty fine goal for a poet. Perhaps the only goal.

Some winter solace

It’s quite cold in Alaska right now. The kind of blue cracking cold that is beautiful but stinging. The kind of cold that makes iron of snow and ice beneath all. And yet, it’s important to get outside, to fill our eyes with sunlight, to remember that this time has beauty unavailable at other, perhaps more temperate, times of year.

Lines for Winter

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

  • Mark Strand (from Selected Poems)