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 giving until the giving feels like receiving.
You have a life—just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe
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.
I’m going to play things by ear, with poetry, for a while. I hope to be back soon with good news.