Memento Mori? How Can I Forget?

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We are flying through Lent, and I have yet to post my acceptance of Mary’s challenge. That is because I’ve been up to my eyeballs in mortality. It’s been overwhelming.

I began this season with a trip to one of the world’s foremost cancer treatment centers. A long-time friend recently had a bone marrow transplant and needed a ride. There were easily a hundred people in the waiting room, from all over the world, all in the fight of their lives. I described it to my husband as “a roomful of fight.” The will to live was palpable in that space.

Then I went to a funeral for a woman who had lived a long life, and who had suffered with difficult health challenges for  many years. Still, her passing came as a shock to her family.

Then my stepdad had surgery, in a state over a thousand miles away. I struggled to focus on my work at home, knowing he was in an operating room, and my mother was waiting there alone. The surgery wasn’t for a life-threatening condition, but it was a reminder that our bodies aren’t built to last forever.

Then a friend’s father passed away. Also in a state over a thousand miles away.

Then a friend’s grandson was born eleven weeks too soon.

Then, the day he came home from the hospital, my stepdad called to tell me that our family dog, Fenway, had died. I have no idea if animals have souls or not, and I am not open to arguing about it. I can tell you that Fenway was family, and it is as true and painful a loss as any other.

Then there was the mass shooting during prayers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. I have cousins in Christchurch who have been sharing their heartache, and their resolve, and their fears, and their beautiful commitment to living as a nation in community.

Then I joined my colleagues getting trained by veteran police officers in how to protect my students during an active shooter incident. I cannot begin to tell you how shaken I was by it.

Then my father-in-law celebrated his 90th birthday with a trip to the ER. Both he and my mother-in-law were diagnosed with the flu. My mother-in-law, was admitted to the hospital for a three-day stay.

Then the last member of my grandmother’s generation, my great aunt Mary, age 95, passed away.

Among the practices I have been doing throughout this season is a daily Memento Mori Examen. I review the day by asking myself these questions:

  • How did God love me today?
  • How did I show others the love of God today?
  • If this is my last moment, how did the loving measure up?

I have not kept up with all of the reading and journaling that I could be doing through this Lenten devotion, but I have not missed a day of the examen. It is a beautiful, powerful practice. Death comes for us all. In light of that, how am I living? It’s a lens angle shift that I am grateful for.

Memento Mori, Maybe?


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This Lent I am going to spend time thinking about my death.

I don’t mean “dying to self” through daily sacrifices, though that’s also valuable. By all means, give up chocolate or coffee or hitting the snooze button on your alarm if you have the stamina for it.  I mean the practice of Memento Mori, remembering one’s actual, eventual, inevitable death.

The practice itself can involve placing a small skull memento on your desk, or carrying around a picture or trinket in your pocket. It’s intended to provoke more thoughtful choices by providing a constant reminder that our time spent living is short and unpredictable.

I plan to go through Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble’s Lenten Devotional, Remember Your Death: Memento Mori with a few close friends. (There is also a lovely but optional companion journal that includes relevant quotes on the topic.) Perhaps I’ll place a little skull on my desk, or wear a subtle bracelet to remind myself throughout the day. I say “subtle” because my intent is to remind myself, not to scare small children or draw undue attention as a middle-aged goth.

Is this morbid? Perhaps. I am drawn to morbid things, so I’m not a good judge. I spent a lot of time playing in a cemetery as a child, and I read a lot of horror. But neither a fascination with cemeteries and horror nor the practice of memento mori are intended to glorify death. They are, rather, a reminder of an easily forgotten truth: we are all going to die. Remembering this in a thoughtful, intentional way can only help us live more meaningfully.

Poetry Challenge Update

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We are heading into the final days of February. I realized yesterday that I have done a lousy job letting anyone—even Mary—know how I am doing with the poetry challenge. To everyone’s surprise, especially my own, I feel like I’ve done really well with this.

I’ve read a least one poem a day. I’ve read a few chapbooks, and a collection of poems. I’ve come across some new (to me) poets, and revisited some old favorites.

Yeats Keats and Shakespeare Langston Hughes Nikki Giovanni Mary Oliver Shel Silverstein

Seamus Heaney Maya Angelou Edgar Allen Poe Kazim Ali Anne Sexton e.e. cummings

Ocean Vuong…

I’ve touched base with a bunch of my poet friends. (Seriously, guys, for someone who proclaims to have rid her life of poetry, I have a LOT of poet friends! It’s pretty great.)

I’ve even looked at some of the poetry I wrote in a course I took with Joanna Penn Cooper  and revised a few pieces. (They still need a LOT of work.)

Some things I’ve learned:

  • Like my taste in music, which is VERY broad, my taste in poetry is all over the map. (I’m MULTI-FACETED people.)
  • Poetry is part of how I learn about someone and about their culture—how individuals and how their people handle their big emotions and big events (births, deaths, weddings, etc.) shows up in their poetry. I had forgotten what a beautiful way of engaging with others. I’m glad I remembered.
  • Turns out I never really swept poetry out of my life. As practical and efficient as I have become, I have in fact kept a steady stream of poetry in my soul that reveals itself in my teaching, in my prayers, in my dreams.

Where is the poetry in your life? What poems do you hold dear?

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Ndi Igisigo—I Am a Poem

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Photo of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen

I dreamed about Rwanda again last night.

I was walking down a red clay road. School children in matching uniforms were running and laughing in a group ahead of me. The air smelled of eucalyptus and smoke. The diminutive Sister Donatella was holding my arm, grinning from ear to ear. In her French roast coffee accent, she is telling me about unshakeable faith. Her joie de vivre should be a contradiction. She, herself, has survived unspeakable horrors, with amazing courage, and a tenacity for her country that usually brings to mind decorated war heroes. Yet, here she is encouraging me as we walk through Kigali…

253239_4815922916569_270569289_n-2Road in Kigali, Rwanda photo by Matt Brennan

When I was a little girl, I saw a National Geographic special about Dian Fossey. Like every kid my age, I was fascinated by her work with apes. That her death was a mystery made Fossey even more compelling to me. Add the gorgeous Nat Geo footage of central Africa in what is now Rwanda and I was hooked.  It was a childhood dream to travel to the Virunga Mountains to meet the “gorillas in the mist” myself.

And then it happened.

Through a series of incredible events, I was able to chaperone two student trips to the Land of a Thousand Hills in 2012 and 2013. As anyone who has ever experienced a culture and geography so different from their own will tell you, those months in Rwanda changed me in very real, very powerful ways. It was more than my broadened worldview, though. In my very core, I am changed.

I still dream about Rwanda often, waking up homesick for the place and its people.

Over the years, I have read dozens of history and ethnographic studies of Rwanda—about Dian Fossey and the apes, yes, but also the nation’s colonization, the ongoing redistribution of borders, the genocide of 1994, the rebuilding of the nation since. It makes for both sobering and inspiring reading.

It is the music, dance, design, and poetry of the nation that has most deeply moved me, though. By my second trip to Rwanda, I had come to know enough about the people I had met (enough to not generalize the entire population of the nation) to start to be able to see the world through their eyes, and not my American eyes.

Their art has been key to helping me do that.

There is a fluidity to Rwandan traditional dance and  pop music  that also shows up in their poetry. At first, I thought it was a sharp contrast to the tenacity of the people who continue to farm on steep mountain slopes; the persistence of a people rebuilding their families, communities, and nation post-genocide. 

I thought their art would be somehow sharper, rockier. Now I see how Rwandan art moves the way flowing water over time will shape landscapes, smooth stones, carve canyons. Sometimes it’s just a trickle. Sometimes it’s whitewater.  On it flows, though, shaping a nation.

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Mountain Stream in Butare, Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen

Here are some spoken word poets for you to check out:

8 Spoken Word Poets Breaking Boundaries in Rwanda

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Thunderstorm in Virunga Mountains over Lake Kivu, Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen

 

 

 

Poetry for Every Mood

 

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Kristen challenged me to dig more into poetry this month. I remember well the poetry unit in high school English. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Peng, had us use a text called Sound and Sense, with a green cover. I hated the unit, and could not wait for it to be over. I could not get into “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, which it seemed we spent at least a month on (it was probably two class periods, but it felt like torture). When we were required to choose a poem to analyze line-by-line, I picked “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, in the hopes that the semi-scandalous subtext would excuse me from digging too deeply into anything other than strict meter and rhythm. (It did not; I believe I got a B.)

I did my best to forget about poetry until years later when I read Neil Gaiman’s collection Smoke and Mirrors, which contains several poems scattered among the short stories. This collection blew my mind for many reasons; first, because he includes a lengthy introduction that tells a bit of the story behind each selection in the book. Second, it was the first time I saw poems as being anything other than overblown melodrama. Gaiman’s poems made me squirm, and shudder, just like his short stories and novels do. It had never occurred to me before that, outside of limericks, poetry could take on a variety of tones and genre. And his explanation of a sestina (a particularly rigid form of poetry with six verses followed by an envoi, with certain words repeating in a certain order—it’s dizzying, truly) made me want to play with words again.

But I did not actively seek out poetry until after my mother died, and my dear friend Cassidy Hall sent me a copy of ’Mary Oliver‘s Thirst. Grief can do really odd things to a person, and different griefs can do different things to the same person. After my mother’s death I found it hard to read anything “pleasant,” opting instead for horror novels, with the exception of Mary Oliver. There was something about her poems—short, accessible, everyday—that made me feel like she was saying, “Yes, I see that tender spot. It’s real. I have felt that too. Come listen to geese with me; they know it too.” Her poetry kept me grounded in a way that the Bible itself could not through that grief. Without preaching, it allowed me to sit, to feel, to listen, to be whatever I needed to be in the moment, and that was pure gift.

Since I’d found it so useful, I went out on a limb and took a poetry class last April (which is National Poetry Writing Month, so heads up: get your quills and ink pots ready, friends). The class was offered through Convivium School, by instructor Rebecca Bratten Weiss. We studied a different type of poem daily for the entire month, and wrote our own examples of each. I was smitten, and have been seeking out poetry to read (and attempting more writing) since.

Below are some of my favorite collections by “feel.”

Are you in the mood for something comforting? Want to commune with nature? In addition to Thirst, I recommend Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings. There is nothing that Oliver cannot make lovely. (Incidentally, this was also a gift from Cassidy, who also makes everything lovely.)

Are you in the mood for something to break your heart and put it back together again like only an Irish poet can? Try anything by Padraig O’Tuama. I’m currently reading In the Shelter, which is a memoir with poetry interspersed. He is truly phenomenal.

Are you in the mood for something uncanny? Try Joanna Penn Cooper’s The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis. She will have you looking at ordinary things upside-down and through a veil.

Are you in the mood for some biting feminism? Try anything by R. Bratten Weiss. If you’d like to combine some uncanniness with some biting feminism, Penn Cooper and Bratten Weiss have a remarkable collaborative work, Mud Woman.

Are you in the mood for something uncanny, horrifying, and grief-driven? I know that sounds like an odd combination, but if you grieve like I do you may really enjoy The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone.

Are you in the mood for historical fiction that’s also horrific? This one is a tough read, but I highly recommend The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. McCully Brown writes fictional poetry based on actual records from the asylum. This one is disturbing.

Are you in the mood for feminist horror, with a bit of whimsy? Try Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. You may chuckle and cringe at the same time.

Are you in the mood for whimsy, with just a touch of horror? Try Pinpricks: A Book of Tiny and Terrible Oddities by Jason Pell. This book is described as “micro fictions and illustrations.” It may be like flash-graphic novel? I find it downright poetic.

 

You’ll notice that many of my selections are horror-related; that’s just my genre of choice. I can guarantee that if you’re more into, say, westerns, or romance, or science fiction, there will be collections out there to suit your preferences. Feel free to share some of your favorites.

 

When a Poem Gets You

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Guernsey, Channel Islands photo by Kristen Allen

I am pretty sure it is a law in New England that all elementary school students must memorize some bit of Robert Frost poetry. Mrs. Burke’s grade 4 reading class went with “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I still can recite it today, complete with a Doris Kearns Goodwin Boston accent.

That wasn’t the poem that hooked me, though. Rather, it was this little bit of gentle verse by Rachel Field, “If Once You Have Slept on an Island.” Field was a children’s author, best known, probably, for her Newbery Award winning story, Hitty, the First Hundred Years, and for her Caldecott winner, Prayer for a Child. The poem appeared in the reading textbook Mrs. Burke, and all the fourth grade reading classes in our school district, and probably in hundreds of school districts, used. It wasn’t considered a classic of poetry. Likely, it was included in the reader to support that week’s spelling or vocabulary list.

But for me, a child who had happy memories walking on Castle Island in South Boston with her Grampie, and spent her summers on Cape Cod with her extended family, this poem captured a bit of her soul. I knew the sound of wheeling gulls. I had felt, really felt tides beat through  my sleep.

Decades and decades later, I still know this poem by heart. When my flight response gets to be too much to ignore, I’ll tell someone, “Sometimes a girl has to spend time on an island, ” and I’ll head to Aquidneck Island (where Newport is), or my parents’ home on the island in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee, or somewhere that will bring back that calm, that feeling of tides beating through my sleep.

Spending time on islands, and by the shore changed me, like the poem said. As a fourth grader, I couldn’t articulate that, but Rachel Field did in those simple lines.

Poetry does that.

 

February Dare: Have a Love Affair with Poetry

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My month of experimenting with visual arts was, well, less than I had hoped. I did some water color painting, and I created some colored pencil mandalas on butcher paper with my preschool students. I picked up a long-abandoned needlework project. It wasn’t much.

My refusal to fully engage in this challenge, despite publicly stating that I was going to do it, shows me that I have more to poke at here. Truthfully, I really enjoyed those small efforts.  A lot. So, why did I not do more? The horror of being incompetent at something is powerful, indeed. It seems it is even more powerful than my concern about breaking the commitment I made here.

I have left my art portfolio on my desk as a reminder of what is possible. When I get out of my own way, and push past the foolish belief that “I suck at this stuff” I experience that beautiful moment of delight in the process, the sheer joy of creating. I want to do more of that. Equally importantly, I want to conquer my fear of inadequacy.

So, my needlepoint supplies are staying out, I will join my students in their joyful abandonment in painting, drawing, and collaging.

And I will read and listen to poetry.

I am a writer, but I am not a poet. It is another one of those mediums that I avoid because of my fear of being terrible.  It is also, I have just realized, another one of those things that I have lost along the way, as I have become pragmatic and practical and responsible and adult.  Just as I have given up ritual and magic in so much of my life, I have given up poetry.

I want it back. Some things just cannot be expressed in a five paragraph essay or a 150 character Tweet. Some things cannot be worked out in a bulleted list. Some things need rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, lyric. Some things need to be expressed out loud. Big questions and big feelings that cannot be contained in a sentence need a stanza.

You must believe: a poem is a holy thing — a good poem, 
that is. ~ Theodore Roethke