The Voice in the Poem

Midway through “The Bridge,” one of Alicia Ostriker’s series of “mastectomy poems,” the speaker switches from the indicative to the imperative. “You never think it will happen to you,” the poem begins, and continues into a deftly rendered scene in a waiting room where a technician opens a door to deliver what will be the first of a series of blows that will change her body and her life.


Then description turns to urgent direction:


Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth

Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.

Try saying fear. Now feel

Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.


I have seen this shift before. I have felt it, in the midst of writing, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of prayer, when a voice comes from somewhere giving direction, and you know it’s not your voice, and you know you didn’t make it up, and you know you’re being spoken to with authority, clarity, and a kind of wisdom that meets the need of the moment. Once the word that came to me in the midst of wrestling with the day’s demons was “Don’t Control Anything.” (Jolted into a fresh level of awareness, my instant response was “Anything?” And it came again, clear and firm: “Don’t Control Anything.”


The commanding voice that appears in this poem seems a little more like that of a friend who knows the speaker needs to be guided through the emotional fog and kept moving so that fear won’t paralyze her. “Try saying fear.” “Put your clothes on in a shabby booth / whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.”   Just do it, the voice insists. It’s humiliating and cold. It’s impersonal and anticlimactic and you are filled, oddly, with shame like a sheep shorn of its one beauty and protection, but the thing to do is walk the gauntlet of clinical rituals, accept the exposure and the confinement and the isolation and the sterile effacement of shock and grief. That will get you home to where you will be free to lay the facts and their terrible implications out on a tabletop with your tea and pore over them while you weep.


“Feel your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth,” the voice continues. Notice your body. In group meditation and body work instructors always tell you this: notice what’s going on in your body. Notice where you’re tense, where there are flickers of pain, which parts of you are objecting to the way you’re sitting or are tired, or want to move. “The body never lies,” Alice Miller wrote. And Karen Horney insisted, “The body is the unconscious.” The body will tell you what you need, and will identify for you what is needful, sometimes to the point of preventing you from doing anything else until you locate the deep energies that will serve your needs. When the tongue cleaves, an imposed silence enforces thought, and offers time, perhaps, for a poem to begin. And a poem, if you are Alicia Ostriker or if you are not, may be the thing that equips you for what is to come.

Early Light

I have been waking early. Very early. When at last, after adjusting the pillow, pitching it overboard, lying on my stomach, my side, my back, trying to remember the lines of a poem, dithering over the to-do list, choosing a sacred word in hope of dropping into centering prayer, and wondering who is riding a motorcycle in this quiet neighborhood at this hour, I get up. My ambivalent efforts to 1) return to sleep or 2) make good use of wakefulness have failed. I make coffee quietly so as not to disturb my slumbering spouse. He also has wakeful nights. This isn’t one of them.

I light a candle. Candlelight soothes me and helps me focus. When the wick catches, a new bit of life happens. “Light of Christ,” I think, remembering the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Easter vigil. The small flame is a revelation: God is light. All light speaks of God, “whose robe is the light.”

A mentor told me one time to step out at night before going to bed and spend two minutes gazing at the moon. He wouldn’t say why. “Just try it,” he said. I do, sometimes. It’s not always two whole minutes; when it’s cold, or the moon is partly clouded over, or the phone rings I may spend only a few moments. I don’t do it every night. But when I do, something happens. Perspective shifts. Some ancient pagan impulse to bow before a natural mystery surges in me like a wave of adrenalin. Beauty I did not make and cannot comprehend brings me back to awe, which seems a proper state of mind for “human merely beings.”

Moonlight is worth staying up for. Candlelight is worth getting up for. As daylight comes “a ribbon at a time,” I am ready to welcome it. I begin the day with a small, familiar prayer from the liturgy: “In your light may we see light.”

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Virginia Woolf reminded us that “Love has a thousand faces.” Oliver Sacks has taught me that curiosity is one of those faces. I think of the endearing way Robin Williams (playing Sacks in the movie Awakenings, with Sacks’ blessing and to Sacks’ own delight) gazed, peered, pondered, watched the patients in his care, looking for signs, clues, small individuating details that might guide him into the intimate empathy he seems to have found for one patient after another. He seems never to have thought of them as a category—“patients”—but always one after another, as persons with stories, who suffered in ways as various as their quirks and facial tics.

He seemed to live by the questions that opened windows into others’ lives and kept his own heart and mind open in situations where many might have closed them. Who are you? What is it like to be you? What exactly are you experiencing? Can I find a verb for that? Has anyone given it a name? Maybe it’s medical, maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual—but what is it, really?

His empathy seems to have been oddly separable from sympathy—or at least to have little of that pity that so easily dissolves into sentimentality. The objectivity about his own death that enabled him to write with such startling clarity and care about it in his final months came from a long practice of the kind of detachment Buddhists talk about—the emphatic opposite of indifference. The detachment of the fully engaged witness.

He left us that to remember and hope for and practice.

Be Not Anxious

“Be not anxious.” It’s the title of a beautiful sermon by the German theologian Karl Barth. It’s also good advice. It’s hard to follow. When I am anxious I get sick. Sometimes people say, “Be well” at the end of their letters. It’s a little like saying “Be not anxious.” I want to say, “I don’t choose to be anxious. I don’t choose to be sick. Those things come upon you.” But I do choose: somewhere in the darker rooms of psyche and memory, when I have the time and temerity to venture in there, is a place of choice that offers a chance to take the way of sickness or the way of health.   “Every choice we make,” a dear friend once said, as though it had just occurred to her, “takes us in the direction of life or the direction of death.” “Therefore choose life,” my favorite line in Deuteronomy, has come since that conversation to mean something much more ordinary—a daily practice—a criterion for even the small decisions.   Which option allows for laughter? Which opens a quiet space of contentment in the midst of busyness? Which gives me what one poet called “the wish to be generous”?

Anxiety arises in the body—in my belly, along the right side of my neck, or on the old pathway of the vascular migraine. I can feel it beginning to throb. But now I know how submissive it is, like a child who really only wants attention, and doesn’t know how to get it if she doesn’t whine.

My girls laugh about how, when they were little, I would grab their chins, look them in the eye, and say with great clarity, “Don’t whine at me. You can say what you need and I will listen, but don’t whine.” I think those were fine mothering moments. I call upon that particular voice these days to address Anxiety. Anxiety is a whiner. Not quite so dignified as worry that seeks information, not as intelligent as informed concern—just whiny and irritating and relentless until I stop and look it in the eye and say, “Don’t whine. Say what you need.”

The need is often legitimate, and one about which I can be compassionate. I need help. I need rest. I need clarity to help me out of a thicket of confusion. Anxiety sharpens the need into suffering. Breathing slowly, asking questions, laughing at what is overwrought or at dithering prognostication, help, or reminding myself that, as Annie put it in her lovely poem, “every earthly darkness has given way to light thus far.”

I become anxious when I feel guilty. I become anxious when I have overcommitted. I become anxious when someone I love is angry, even when it’s not at me. And the guilt and the overcommitment and the fear of others’ anger or judgment or disappointment are never as big as they become when I see them through the cloudy lens of anxiety. They are manageable. Most things are manageable. I think it was Ambrose Bierce who wryly said, “Few things matter very much and most things don’t matter at all.” I wouldn’t adopt that as a general statement about life, but it has been useful. It puts me at a healthy distance. It makes me laugh. And laughter, I believe, is a reliable sign of spiritual health.

The Happiness We Can Have

What, rouse thee, man! thy Juliet is alive,

For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;

There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,

But thou slew’st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:

The law that threaten’d death becomes thy friend

And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:

A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;

Happiness courts thee in her best array;

But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,

Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:

Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.’


Friar Lawrence’s admonishment to Romeo, who is awash in self-pity, is an appeal to recognize all the particular blessings, reprieves, and privileges that fate or God have poured upon him. He urges the self-dramatizing adolescent to recognize what has been given and to receive it.

In English, as well as in German and French, a lineage can be traced from happiness to notions of fortune, fate, luck, or the will of the gods. “Haply I think on thee,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29, meaning not “happily,” but “I happen to”—but when the speaker happens, haply, to “think on thee,” it seems, he becomes happy in some of the most exquisite ways English can afford him: “and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate, for thy sweet love, remembered, such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

The occasion of happiness here as in Romeo’s case, is something given—a happenstance, a sudden occurrence of something unbidden, but recognized and received.

Among the many ways to define or imagine happiness, one that makes sense to me is that it is something available, like ground water (for the time being) or radio waves that we can tap or tune into and receive. It is not so much a human condition as an ambient condition—perhaps a condition of the God “whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere” in which we are invited now and then to share. The more we accept the invitation, I think, the more practiced we become at tuning in and receiving happiness, broadcast like the Spirit that is described in scripture as “poured out” upon mankind. We can be drenched by it, or, huddling in our self-constructed shelters, we can miss it the way we miss the weather when the blinds are closed.

I imagine every doctor has seen people inexplicably happy in the midst of suffering that would seem to provide ample reason for despair. I think of one account of a woman with end-stage breast cancer, who lived day to day in considerable pain, but who while she had a voice sang with a visiting friend an old hymn with the refrain, “Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” When her voice went, she urged her friend to sing it for her. She wasn’t being insipidly pious. She was asserting a kind of happiness evidently not dependent on happenstance. Another line in the same song reads, “No storm can shake my inmost calm when to that Rock I’m clinging…” Happiness described there has something to do with finding a source of stability and confidence that is finally psychologically and spiritually independent of circumstance, somehow surviving slings and arrows and the ills that flesh is heir to.   That seems the kind of happiness to hope for, pray for, receive, claim, and live into. It’s available. It’s not too late. Therein we are happy.

A Prayer for the Year to Come


May we be fully present to those who cross our paths.

May we open space and time for surprise.

May we change course when change is called for

and be ruddered by our deepest purposes.

May we remember that we can afford to laugh

and to be silent in the midst of much speaking.

May we give gladly and receive gratefully.

May our mourning be deep and trusting

and our celebrations generous and joyful.

May we be quick to repent

and patient in recovery.

May we learn from the teachers we are sent

and from the Spirit who indwells and awakens.

May we step forward with courage,

step back with courtesy

and stand still when our work is to wait.





A World of Words

A colleague began her Bible as literature class quoting a rabbi who said of reading Torah, “These words are my very life.” The connection between words and life energy, blessing, and well-being crosses traditions; as far as I know every tradition preserves sacred words, sacred texts, and some sense of the sacramentality of words, themselves. Linguist Barry Sanders points out that for the ancient Hebrews, utterance—forming a word from the breath of life—was a form and likeness of divine power.

Watching a child begin to speak is among the most awe-inspiring moments of parenting. Most children are awed, themselves: they say the word “light,” they point to the light, wide-eyed, and then laugh in surprise and delight. Watching a child begin to read is similarly stirring. When I sat down recently to read to little Hannah, she firmly took the book into her own lap and said, “No. I want to read to you.” And she did—slowly and proudly, having something of her own to offer in an empowering and exhilarating exchange.

I’ve also sat with children who were illiterate, or virtually so. The pain of staring at a word, knowing it means something, not knowing what, the humiliation and the hunger and the shame are heartbreaking. Some fake it as well as they can. Some go sullen. Some ask for help over and over, repeating the words provided then asking again.

I’ve also sat with college students whose literacy, for all their hours in school, is largely limited to reading what’s on the page and making literal sense of it. There is a kind of deep illiteracy that remains undiagnosed because it is masked by an ability to read that stopped with phonics. Just as vibrant health is more than survival, life-giving reading practices involve far more than word recognition and correct inflection.

To read well is to play what’s on the page the way a musician plays the written notes, interpreting, nuancing, feeling one’s way into the text with a keen awareness of the many hermeneutic choices being made at every turn. It involves identification, empathy, imagination, a capacity to see and tolerate ambiguities, the authority to infer and interpolate. It’s joyous, inventive work.

And, as Larry Dossey, MD points out, it bears a direct connection to health of body and spirit. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting wrapped in a blanket in my father’s big recliner reading Gone With the Wind for three days straight while I skipped school, recovering from tonsillitis. It was healing. It was life-giving. It gave me access and energy. I would wish an experience like that for every kid, and for every adult—to get lost in words and find a way. To know one’s own journey as story. To let words heal, by distracting and redirecting and inviting the mind and heart to the other side of the looking glass.

Refusing Invisibility

I remember a moment of pure, loyal, sad, focused outrage the first time I saw someone treat my mother—my lovely, smart, resilient, adventuresome, generous, imaginative mother—like a little old lady. The man at the customer service counter looked at her—or rather just past her—and spoke to her without seeing her. She was another inconspicuous woman of a certain age, rather sweet looking, ready to be friendly, but whose friendliness was likely to be a bore, and whose questions were likely to take up too much time, and be about matters that, if she thought at all, or had a husband at home to do her thinking for her, wouldn’t have had to bring her in here. He was short with her. He answered her questions in technical terms that seemed designed to intimidate. If I hadn’t intervened, she would simply have gone away, disheartened and a little humiliated.

She was a “little old lady.” Littler than I am by quite a bit–I got my height from my dad—and old—in her eighties—but of sound mind, sound sense of humor, rich in memory and observation. Only she was of a generation that had learned to be kind and courteous and—since she was female—compliant. I could see how “generic” she looked; her hair was grey and permed in a way no one under 60 would consider. Her dress was a modest print. She wore a cardigan over it, and nylons with sensible walking shoes. She carried a purse on her arm. She wore slightly glasses.

That she could also raise begonias in soil no one else thought would work, and make a jacket with covered buttons from scratch, and recite long passages from the King James Bible, and tell stories that spanned most of the century with delicious detail and still inspire roomsful of fifth-graders, not to mention adults who tagged along to listen, with her mission talks from India were things he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

I’d heard women observe before that at a certain age, women become invisible, but I hadn’t actually seen the moment of magic—the moment when, poof, they exited the field of vision. I’ve known women who have internalized that message—that you no longer matter, that you are no longer interesting, that you’d do best to stay home and watch Jeopardy and make tuna casserolds. They are hesitant and too pleasant. They defer in general conversation. The become, in fact, a little less interesting.

I like the bumper sticker that reminds me regularly, driving around the East Bay, that “Well behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a good message to offset several generations of conditioning. But the curious thing is that well-behaved women actually have made history. My mother’s best friend was just as lovely and smart and congenial as she; she was also a research biologist at Baylor and spent, for reasons still unclear to me, several inexplicable seasons in Brazil studying the 3-toed sloth.

I don’t intend to be invisible.

What Are We Willing to Know?

Knowing enough to act responsibly as citizens and consumers depends on our answers to seven questions. The first of them in a sense includes all the others:


1) What am I willing to know? Am I willing to know things that impose new political or economic responsibilities on you? That make me feel less safe? That complicate my decisions? Am I willing to know things that make me feel guilty? My carbon footprint? What the companies I buy from may be doing to child laborers? Under what conditions my meat was processed? Jonathan Foer’s Eating Animals is a compelling story of his personal journey from ignorance to awareness of abuses and sanitation violations in factory farms. It’s a story about willingness to find out and change habits on the basis of new information.


2) What am I willing to ask? It is fatally easy to fall into patterns of accepting as “normal” practices that in fact are doing great harm. Our use of plastics is an easy case in point. Common sense tells us that if certain plastics cannot biodegrade even when ground into small nurdles—if the plastic bottle from which you drank your pint of water at yesterday’s picnic will be here 500 years from now—we are using up a limited resource and filling land and water with undigestible fragments of material when we dispose of it. But it takes a certain initiative to step back, hold that bottle at arm’s length, and ask, “Why are we making plastic bottles, using them once, and throwing them away?” If you ask that seriously, it may lead you actually to do the homework, whereupon you may find out that it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water, and that more than 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the bottles Americans use and throw away in a year.

Asking questions like this may lead us to feel guilty. It may lead us to change our habits. It may lead us to worry about things we were blissfully ignorant of before. It may lead us to pray for guidance toward better stewardship.


3) What possibilities am I willing to consider? If I want to know what I need to know, I may have at least to listen to information or arguments that lead me well outside my comfort zone. Am I willing to consider the possibility that the 9/11 attacks involved inside collaboration? That my child’s textbooks are censored by people who have a political agenda? That GMO foods aren’t as safe as the food corporations would have us believe? That even my worst enemies may be able to teach you something?


4) Whom am I willing to trust? The government? My pastor? The pharmaceutical companies? NPR? MSNBC? The vendors at my local farmer’s market? Independent scholars? Some questions that can help clarify who is trustworthy are: who is benefiting from this process or practice?   How transparent is their self-disclosure? Who is funding them? Much scientific research on new drugs is funded by large pharmaceutical corporations and on milk products by the dairy industry. This should at least raise some questions about the integrity of that research. (Conflicts of interest like this occur pervasively in war efforts that are supported by those who profit from war.)


5) What am I willing to risk? Am I willing to risk having to change opinions I’ve held publicly? Am I willing to risk friends’ disapproval? Am I willing to risk my own disillusionment or discomfort? Am I willing to risk being identified as an outsider or troublemaker or threat? Am I willing to risk being targeted for speaking out?


7) What am I willing to argue for? Some people find a “good argument” stimulating—even exhilarating. But a lot of us don’t like to argue. It’s strenuous. It creates tensions. It requires homework. Argument that aims to persuade is an art form as well as a matter of moral conviction. Aristotle devoted a copious book to the matter of argumentative strategies, since he regarded them as a basis for functional civil discourse and viable public life. It takes careful, strategic thinking to discern when to appeal to reason, to authority, to precedent, to emotions, to imagination in order to persuade others to see—and even more careful self-examination to determine what we ourselves may not be seeing. There’s not much point in thinking about what needs to be said unless we’re really willing to consider other points of view, and how to enable others to hear ours without feeling condescended to, judged, or simply trumped. Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World surveys the varieties of incivility that gum up the gears of public discourse, and issues a call, not to bland courtesies, or to political neutrality, but to seek the sources of disagreement and enter “tough conversations” that might lead to more fruitful negotiation. We need to care about when and how to speak to those we hope to persuade and (this may be the hard part) listen carefully for counterarguments that may inform or modify our own.


8) What am I willing to act on? Knowing generally imposes a moral obligation to act—to change habits, to share information, to protest, to participate in change. To do the homework is also to accept the responsibility that comes with information. Once you know a company is polluting local streams or exploiting children or engaging in false advertising your support of that company is reframed as participation in their practices. (Amit Srivastava at and Ray Rogers at have reported on Coca Cola’s serious human and environmental abuses in India, Columbia, Guatemala, and elsewhere. To read their material requires that one reconsider the consequences of buying and drinking one of America’s most popular soft drinks.)

Positive actions that go beyond protest are happening all over the world—the Slow Food Movement, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Rainforest Network, the League of Conservation Voters, the Union of Responsible Scientists, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Evangelicals for Social Action, The Simple Way, and countless other groups have been formed to inform the public, encourage alternatives to poor choices, and promote innovation, peace, and cooperation.

But one of our basic tools for good–language itself–is under siege: coopted by commercial interests, many words are now laden with associations that make them hard to use in neutral or historically accurate ways. Words like “freedom” (whose?) or “democracy” (practiced under what economic system?) or “acceptable” (to whom?) or “standard” (set by what body?) are moving targets.

So willingness to know—to do the reading, have the conversations, compare sources, question our own experience–takes courage, humility, discernment, sometimes sacrifice. It leads us into new communities, which we’ll need, because knowing can be lonely. It can realign our interests and relationships, sometimes putting distance between us and people we love. Once you know a new thing, the kaleidescope shifts; there’s no going back to ignorance or innocence. A door closes behind you. The next door may not open immediately, either, because knowing takes time. One statistic, one new fact, one story can change the way you see a practice or policy, but facts are trailheads. To follow the implications of a new fact (say, once you find out that 48 million Americans are uninsured, or that the Amazonian rainforest is disappearing at twice the rate of earlier estimates) takes some reading around, getting a bigger picture, following the story. Knowing takes time.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” He knew what political consequences he faced for taking a stand on a belief he could not compromise. Hundreds of thousands of people now face political consequences for challenging authority, speaking truth to power, making public the results of careful investigations that challenge carefully orchestrated propaganda. Being willing to know what they know and act on it has made them vulnerable, has subjected them to ostracism, loss, even torture. But they still commit to serve their God, their families, their fellow citizens, consumers, patients, students, believers, wittily, in minds they have trained to link question to question until verifiable answers emerge from the tangle.

This kind of courage is the true aim of education—certainly of Christian education—willingness to know and act on what we know humbly but confidently, alert always to how new information can modify what we think we know. To sustain each other in this we need life-giving conversation—the kind that takes whole evenings—and we need to care. Being willing to know is a way of loving our neighbors, ourselves and God, one of the highest commands under which we live.

When the Moment Comes

Think what you missed while you were doing what you were supposed to do.

I often think of the moment when I first let go of the side of the pool.  It wasn’t when my brother (who was teaching me to swim) told me to.  It wasn’t when I screwed up my courage and decided to.  In a sense, it let go of me.  Suddenly I was floating, and ecstatic—but the feeling wasn’t one of triumph, because I hadn’t really “done” anything—certainly not made a decision.  I just, as they say, “found myself” free-floating in the water.
On many other occasions I’ve “found myself” doing something that involved a kind of consent or courage or acquiescence that had nothing to do with my conscious, often resisting mind.  Once, as I was lecturing to about 35 students I found myself walking over to a woman in the front row who appeared to be in acute pain and lightly massaging her shoulder, continuing the lecture as I did so.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world, though as I looked back, I realize it was very odd classroom behavior.  More oddly, though, no one seemed to object, or even take note, and I remember that she visibly relaxed.  So it was a good thing to do, but not a good for which I take any particular credit for “being kind” or even “sensitive.”  I just registered her pain and acted in response.
I’ve made major decisions without much attention to the long pro and con lists someone always recommends—so many that it almost seems to me sometimes that a criterion of a valid and right-minded decision is one that comes from somewhere beyond the mind, takes you by surprise, and is already effectively made by the time you realize you’ve made it.
It’s a subtle process—the movement from perception to action that takes a route through the heart rather than the mind.  It has a certain gift-character; control and planning seem beside the point when I’m in the midst of a situation that evokes a vivid and immediate intuitive response:  “Yes, I’m on my way.”  “No, I’m not going to walk into that conflict.”  “This is dangerous.”  “I was on the way somewhere else, but I’m stopping here.”  I went through a day once practicing the mantra, “Say yes.  Whatever it is, say yes” as a way of trying to allow myself to notice these invitations.  It was a mindful day.  I can’t claim that I make it a consistent practice, but whenever it occurs to me to say that “yes,” the frame shifts a little, and I am brought again to the present—always the best place (and really the only place) to be.