Occasions: Selected Poems
These poems, written for occasions, remind us of those occasions that recur—celebrations, commemorations, rites of passage, and ordinary moments of being that linger in memory as turning points or extraordinary encounters or summonings. Tied as they are to particular times and places, readers may recognize in them echoes of their own beginnings, partings, and moments of awakening.
Lists serve a variety of purposes. Not just reminders of things to do or buy, they can also become short exercises in reflection on what more there may be to see about our desires, fears, hopes, uncertainties, or unexplored possibilities. This book offers a variety of reflections on the uses of lists, prompts and exercises in list-making, and sample lists from the author’s own long list of lists.
Advent is a time to reflect on the great gift of our own lives and of the divine life into which we are invited. It is a good time to consider how to live. These short meditations offer reflections that question–how we might live hopefully, resiliently, repentantly, faithfully, wisely, lovingly.
Holding a word for a week, reflecting on it daily, allowing it to open new avenues of reflection, can be a rich practice. Drawing from the long tradition of lectio divina these meditations invite and model ways of living with a word and letting it lead one into new places of the heart, mind, and spirit.
These meditations are for family members and friends who are doing the life-changing work of accompanying someone on the final stretch of his or her journey. A Long Letting Go invites caregivers to slow down for reflection and prayer as they prepare to say good-bye to a beloved friend or family member and grieve that loss.
These reflections and prayers address a range of concerns that arise in situations of terminal illness: discouragement, embarrassment, boredom, loss of privacy, family conflict, indignities, spiritual torpor, sadness. Based on the writer’s personal experiences with the dying, they are written in the first person, with the intent of giving them an immediacy and candor they might not have otherwise. Frequent references to scripture and poetry serve as reminders of the rich resources available to those whose faith has equipped them for this final journey. A prayer follows each reading.
Lectio divina is an ancient way of reading scripture that invites personal reflection and contemplation. Readers listen for the word or phrase that summons them to pause, moving “inward” before moving “onward.” The author’s reflections on phrases from Scripture are offered in the hope that readers will find their own places to pause and enter the sacred space scripture provides for our habitation.
As a way of communicating the lived experience of illness or disability, poetry opens a very different window from narrative, emphasizing in its singular way discontinuity, surprise, and the uneasy relationship between words and the life of the body. These reflections on poetry by patients offer kinds of information unlikely to emerge in case histories or clinical dialogue.
Reading Like a Serpent invites readers to reconsider Hawthorne’s American classic, The Scarlet Letter, as his challenge to the public of his time to become more generous, versatile, and responsible readers–especially of the Bible, a book Hawthorne hoped to rescue from moralistic literalists and legalists, reminding us that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another. If language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in something like the way good farmers care for the life of the soil.
It is the artist’s vocation to surprise us into remembering that the ordinary elements of our messy, material lives are gifts. Rembrandt restores us to a sense of the sacramentality of daily life. This daily life provides the terms in which he “reads” the biblical stories and invites us to read them—moments of real encounter among real people working out their salvation with a God who made and makes himself known in palpable, visible, surprising ways.
Vermeer invites us into an environment rich with unspoken feeling. There is in his portraits of women a quality of unconscious self-disclosure that makes them poignant; they are pensive, attentive, cautious, reticent, apprehensive, or deep in concentration. The viewer’s vantage point enforces a kind of dramatic irony; we know something about them they do not, perhaps could not, know themselves. What we know about them is mediated by the intelligent, generous eye of the artist whose work it was to enable us to see as he saw. These women are the objects of honorable and honoring attention that endows them, their work, the circumstances of their lives, with particular dignity.
He left us an invitation: say yes. The paintings call for our consent—to relinquish, to reorganize, to reimagine, to see into, to see through. To let solid objects be verbs rather than nouns and to recognize the surging life force in an olive tree or a bank of wild iris urgent with the work of growing purple. If you soften your vision just a little and let your eye relax into submission, you may get a glimpse of the “unified field” where forces come together and negotiate their differences in intimate and energetic play.
We all have a private vocabulary of words associated with particular moments of discovery. Psychotherapists have built empires on this truth simply by paying systematic attention to word associations and considering the immanent logic of the connections people make between one word and another. The fact that the word “lilac” recalls the wallpaper in a grandmother’s bathroom for one, a line from Whitman for another, or a feeling of inexplicable sadness for yet another testifies to the way words constellate complex, shifting, layered patterns of meaning and feeling.
To invite you to meditate on elemental things, the poems in this collection are grouped under four headings that represent the first “periodic table of elements”-Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. The ancients believed that all things were made of these, and the larger truth of that belief lies in meditation on the subtleties and complexities of each, both in their physical properties and in their symbolic richness.
from the introduction
The same ideological forces that shaped domestic architecture in the U.S. also shaped other forms of cultural expression, including, of course, our literature. The way we build and inhabit our houses has a good deal to do with the way we tell our stories. In both architectural and literary theory ongoing debates have focused on tensions between apparently opposed principles: beauty and utility, simplicity and decorativeness, imitation and originality, convention and experimentation.
A course in literature and medicine can train the empathetic imagination. All literature courses ought to do this. All medical training ought to include this. Literature teaches us in unique ways to imagine the other, to use the imagination as an instrument of compassion, to tolerate ambiguity, to dwell in paradox, to consider multiple points of view, and to recognize that the truth about any human experience is, as Mark Van Doren puts it, that “there is no single way it can be told.”
from the introduction
Conversion doesn’t always require
a fall from a horse or three days
of blindness. Sometimes we see
the light at the edge of the field
when the gaze is fixed on the teacup
or we are chewing our pencils
looking for a word.
from “Halo Effect”
Many post-World War I autobiographies focus on episodes of crisis. In a century torn by global strife and breakdown of cultural institutions, autobiography provides a way of recovering from crisis and restructuring one’s reality–a healing act that involves the writer in a “wrestle with words and meanings that can be deeply regenerative. Narration can be a way of purging guilt and pain, recentering the self, and reconnecting with community after a shattering experience has driven one into silence and isolation.