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.
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
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?
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…
Road 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.
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.
Mountain Stream in Butare, Rwanda photo by Kristen Allen
Here are some spoken word poets for you to check out:
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.
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.
My month of experimenting with visual arts was, well, lessthan 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
Time is fleeting.
Madness takes its toll.
Oh, look. I’ve gone from a pleasant dream to mid-thought in a second. I’m suddenly wide awake, Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show running through my head.
I remember doing the Time Warp,
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me
And the void would be calling
Let’s do the Time Warp again…
It happened the night before, too. If the pattern holds, my mind will start racing through random thoughts mixed with snatches of songs until I land on some unfinished work and feel anxious, head spinning, heart pounding.
Head over heart, heart over pelvis.
Pay attention to the way you stand. Stack the bones for a firm foundation.
Why am I cycling through Yoga with Adriene now? I’d agreed to try daily yoga exercises for the month of January with a group of women more motivated than I. I didn’t get very far; I think I did two days, spread over a week. The dogs were distressed, and my daughter was afraid I’d fallen and couldn’t get up. I wasn’t terribly stable. I was scaring those around me.
Take your time. Pay attention to the way you breathe. When you inhale, feel your abdomen and your rib cage expand in all four directions. Take up space…
Time. Space. This all reminds me that I was supposed to spend the month making art, for fun. But I haven’t really, unless you count some photos I took of moss, or the marzipan flowers I made with my daughter for the cupcakes to help take her mind off looming events, or the conversations with various friends about music.
Those probably don’t count.
Hey, there’s that unfinished work.
God, I need to sleep.
Hey, God. Hey. I need to sleep.
I reach into my bedside drawer to fish around quietly for a rosary. My grandma taught me long ago, when she would visit and we’d have to share a bed and she smelled pleasantly of talcum powder and yarn, that the best way to bore yourself to sleep is by starting a rosary. My hand finds some cool, smooth beads, and I slide it out.
I wonder how that works. The rosary leads you around in a predictable circle, reciting rote prayers while reflecting (or attempting to) on a portion of Christ’s life. Christ’s life, written in the stones of the Stations of the Cross, on cathedral walls, in museums. It’s the same. It’s a circle. Birth, death, birth. Repeat. But what if it’s broken? What if the end doesn’t come back to the beginning in a stable, but is able to spiral through time, Kairos time instead of Chronos? What if it reached…all the way here?
Let’s do the Time Warp again….
Hey there, random song snatches.
It’s just a jump to the left
I remember the summer I learned to do the Time Warp. I was maybe 5 or 6, and tagged along on a marching band field trip. The high schoolers thought I was so cute,
And then a step to the riiiiiight
particularly since I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, but was so enthusiastic anyway.
With your hands on your hips,
You bring your knees in tight.
But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insa-a-aaaaane
I had no idea what I was doing.
Head over heart, heart over pelvis.
I wonder if my grandmother felt like she knew what she was doing. She looked like she knew what she was doing—and she was most definitely an artist. I am actively trying to sleep under one of her most beautiful works, an afghan of blue, light blue, purple, and brown. She made it for me when I found the watch she thought she’d lost forever—the last gift my grandfather had given her before he died.
Let’s do the time warp again
I wonder if she cried while she crocheted it,
Stack the bones
I wonder if she stitched him back together in her memory, with the watch and the yarn and her shaking arthritic hands and her tears.
Isn’t that what we do, much of the time, with art? What we seek? We hook into the time slip, latch onto a thread of truth, pull it into our here and now, and interpret it through our lens. And when others (or maybe just one other, maybe the One who created us to begin with) can look at it and see it and recognize both something of themselves and something of us in it—that’s a unique connection. That’s a rush. To release that back into time, to leave a marker of this place, this time, this truth, this meeting, and the juxtaposition of them, like dropping a pin on a map–that’s a legacy. That’s taking the ghost of a thought, stacking the bones inside it, and giving it flesh.
Feel yourself expand in all directions
It can happen with an afghan, or a song, or when your four-year-old draws a picture of Heaven complete with grandparents they’ve never met.
Head over heart
I might scare those around me.
Heart over pelvis
I won’t know what I’m doing.
Jump to the left
It will take time, and space, and breath, and truth.
Stack the bones
Tomorrow I will put some flesh on some bones.
Let’s do the Time Warp again.
(Note: The quotes from Yoga with Adriene are the way my brain remembered them at 2 a.m. They may not be accurate.)