Tag Archives: national poetry month

My Life’s Sister Ship

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Do you ever wake up and wonder: How the heck did I get here?

As though it weren’t necessarily a series of steps, a string of choices, but rather a falling-into the life you seem to be living.

As though you have had no agency at all and have merely shown up to the party, hoping to get some free chips and maybe a half-decent conversation.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many good things are in your life, how many moments are beautiful or poignant or meaningful, because still you wonder what if?

I try so hard not to live in a dream world, but that is exactly what I do. I’ve created so many different plot lines to this one little life that they’re hard to keep track of. As each experience, each door (whether opened or closed) occurs, I watch a plot line drop off like an untethered dory, drifting further and further away but somehow, no less dear.

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Like the time I thought I would be a big-shot editor at a publishing house in Boston.

Or the time I thought I would marry a boy down the street (whom I never met but hoped to, someday) and we would buy a house in my hometown and walk the kids to school every day.

Or the time I thought I would teach English in South America, discovering another culture all on my own and overcoming my fear of living far away.

Or the time I was sure I was supposed to move to Europe, maybe get my Master’s in Christianity and the Arts (this one’s still tantalizing, I have to admit), and get some challenging and amazing job that combined everything I loved into some sort of mythical dream.

Or the time I would get paid to write, and somehow the ideas would flow endlessly from me. It was always effortless, as though I were a pool of creativity, knowledge, and wisdom.

Or the time I would teach voice lessons from the comfort of my home, making music with friends, performing in operas and living the life of an artist.

Or, if we go way back, the time when I thought I’d live on a farm with no electricity (yes, no electricity. or running water.).

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The first winter I was out of college, I discovered the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2011, he’s what I would call a winter poet: a little narrative, a touch of melancholy, along the lines of Seamus Heaney. The poem that made me buy the book was “The Blue House”, and some wouldn’t even call it a poem. Prose poem is the term, I suppose, since he doesn’t use line breaks, but it does the work.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I began to understand what was happening, what the point was of all this description of some imagined house. On and on he goes about joy and death, painting a house without brushes, a child who “too early abandoned the task of being a child.” It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized what Transtromer was really experiencing:

Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

And there it was, the way I have felt my entire life – all the what-ifs and maybes and if-onlys rolled up into one simple sentence. There is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. You can stand on the deck of your life’s ship and watch as the life you could have led sails away, perhaps less real but all the more provocative.

This path we take (or find ourselves on) is a string of choices. It’s also a matter of opportunities and missed opportunities. It’s luck and blessing and shoot that’s terrible. It’s the real-life route while we still sometimes cling to the ghosts of those other ships.

How many are there?

For me, quite a few, of varying possibility and varying audacity.

The ship I’m on is beautiful and challenging and surprising. But those ghost ships can stay even more magical and enticing for the very fact that they’re unknowable, beckoning to me from the horizon.

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What Breaks Your Heart

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[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]

“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”

It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.

Funeral Blues

I
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

~ W. H. Auden

Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.

So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.

Have you seriously never felt this way?

You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?

You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?

And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.

I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.

Obviously.

So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?

It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.

I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.

It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.

And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.

I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.

I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.