Improvised Life’s status as a one-man-band writing operation really shows when life gets challenging, as it is now.

This week, my dearest friend will have open-heart surgery, a territory whose outcomes and demands defy prediction. So I will be taking time off from writing Improvised Life for a while. But I will be carrying its lessons with me as I navigate waiting, hospital, ICU… about the healing effects of poetry, and the way help and illumination come from unexpected places when it is most needed.

…As it did this week when Cara de Silva hurled an extraordinary article over my transom: When Death Comes: An Oncology Nurse Finds Solace in Mary Oliver. Oncology nurse Nina Solis navigated her first experience of a patient’s passing reading Mary Oliver’s poetry, and in that, found a way to “make peace with the unknown”. The article is deeply heartening and made many of Oliver’s poems resonate in new ways. It is the clearest example I’ve seen of the kind of solace and guidance poetry can provide during really challenging circumstances.

When I read my friend this fragment from Oliver’s “To Begin With, The Sweet Grass”, he said: “She really gets both sides”. That is, the realities of the body, mortality, illness — she lived with cancer for many years—AND the aliveness that is possible at every moment.

Look, and look again.
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.

It’s more than bones.
It’s more than the delicate wrist with it’s personal pulse.
It’s more than the beating of the single heart.
It’s praising.
It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving.
You have a life—just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe
still another.

It suddenly made me think of the video of valiant seeds seeming to dance as they spring forth: life force in action. (Best for me with sound low of OFF.)

When I asked my friend what he would like me to read to him in the ICU, he said: Su Tung Po. The eleventh century Chinese poet has become like a friend. His poems resonate deeply with our own lives more than a thousand years later.  

Mountains shine through forest breaks, bamboo hides the wall;
withered grass by small ponds, jumbled cicada cries.
White birds again and again cut across the sky;
faint scent of lotus pink on the water.

Beyond the village,
by old town walls,
with goosefoot cane I stroll where late sunlight turns.
Thanks to rain that fell at the third watch last night
I get another cool day in this floating life.

The Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I’m going to play things by ear, with poetry, for a while. I hope to be back soon with good news.

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8 replies on “With Poetry as Balm for Dire Straits, We Are Taking Time Off (Mary Oliver, Su Tung p’o)

  1. Best of luck to your friend and to you in this difficult time.

  2. Sally, I just wanted to tell you that my son, now 43, has had two open-heart surgeries (the first when he was 10 months old, in 1978, and the second in the summer of 2019). There was a huge difference in the two experiences, mainly because of the amazing advances in medical understanding and technology in the intervening 40 years. Because of traumas associated with the first surgery, I was pretty panicky before the second, but Ara was out of the hospital in 4 days, and his recovery was swift and complete. Your understanding of the power of poetry and loving support will be a blessing to your friend. I’m holding healing thoughts for him, and as always, my appreciation and best wishes to you.

  3. The best of prayers and wishes for your friend and comfort for you during the waiting process. You both are inspirations to us all. Godspeed!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I helped a close friend through a stroke and two heart surgeries this year, and I am grateful to have had the chance to do so. My only regret is not having the poetry to help me through. Obviously, I didn’t give enough due to the solace of art. I wish you the best getting through difficult days ahead.

  5. Thinking about you with deep love and gratitude.

  6. Sending light and healing prayers your way for you both…

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