“Forgetfulness”

I love how a poem, an essay, or a novel can shimmer with new meaning when you reread it years later — when the defining moments of your own life realign with the story. It’s sort of like running into an old friend who looks better as he ages.

I first read Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness” in Questions About Angels more than 10 years ago. While I found it amusing, it didn’t really hit me where I lived at the time.

This week, while thumbing through Collins’ anthology, Sailing Alone Around the Room, the poem found me again.

And this time my heart jumped as I read the line, “one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain….” Of course, I thought immediately of my mother’s current struggle with dementia; her inability to access key dates and events, including the year her mother died; the city where she was born; the time she was hit by a car in a parking lot.

My middle-aged friends and I often chuckle over the fact that we sometimes walk into a room and forget what we’re looking for. And we get a little nervous when we can’t recall the name of a film classic we’ve enjoyed for years. We laugh, yet we’re all secretly haunted by the unnerving possibility that we could misplace our most important memories and never retrieve them. Likewise, this poem is laced with Collins’ trademark wit, but ends on a wistful note. — CL

Forgetfulness

By Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

— Top Photo: Collage detail from an altered book by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image for a full view. —

New ground

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” — John O’Donohue

It started off as a horrific week. My Web site was attacked by a malicious virus, requiring several days of tedious repairs (and I’m still not finished with the archives yet).  Later that same day, my dermatologist removed five pre-cancerous patches from my skin. It got a little worse than that, but I won’t go there. It’s enough to say that everything seemed to be eating away at me all at once, or was trying to shed itself.

Regardless, I was making plans for my garden this morning when I was struck with an overwhelming sense of grace and peace. Which shouldn’t surprise me.

My worry list always seems less significant when I breathe deeply in a garden. Working the soil, I forget about midlife health issues, household chores, film bookings, aging parents, unfinished projects, and what I should try to publish next. I forget about blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I forget about all those outdated magazines piling up next to the bed, unread. I turn off the endless loop of chatter from the outside world.

Weeding the Zen garden, I am fully engaged in the moment. Clearing space around the stepping stones, I consider summer’s possibilities. I feel the green stirring of something new, though I cannot name it yet. This Celtic blessing says it all. — CL

For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

–Reprinted from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue, Doubleday Religion, 2008.  Special thanks to Sharon of One Woman’s Life in Maine for sharing this beautiful poem with me.

“Wild Geese”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.” — Mary Oliver

Sunset1“Wild Geese” is another favorite by our old friend Mary Oliver, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry we’ve explored in previous posts. Listening to Anne Lamott’s Word by Word, an audio CD on creative writing, I learned that Lamott posted this poem near her desk — and advises all writers and artists to do the same.

“Wild Geese” touched a tender place in my soul. Like so many friends of mine, I was taught as a child to obey the edicts of the organized religion my family practiced. I was terrified of making mistakes — and terrified of disappointing a punitive, unforgiving God. (Not to mention disappointing my parents and teachers.) No matter how “good” I was, or how closely I followed the rules and colored within the lines, I still felt unworthy. A nasty inner critic took up residence inside my head, too, sitting right next to the punitive God.

Today, I follow a strong code of ethics and my own faith, but no longer allow fear to constrict my life or narrow my view. As Mary Oliver reminds me, we were all made to shine our creative light, and to dance freely in this gorgeous world of ours. — CL

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Reprinted from Owls and Other Fantasies, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; 2003.

Wild words

What more could I do with wild words?” — Mary Oliver

I’m a cat lover and a morning person, so Mary Oliver‘s “Morning” spoke to me the first time I read it. And each time I revisit the poem, something else strikes me.

Last week, for instance, a student in one of my workshops told me that list-making helps her get started when she’s trying to write a piece. Note how the first few lines of Oliver’s poem, below, work as a list of her morning observations. And note how the cat becomes a metaphor for “wild words,” and how, once again, the most ordinary experiences are sheer poetry. — CL

Morning
By Mary Oliver

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

–Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; Boston; 2005.

–Top Photo: Our wonderful cat, Jack, was a “wild thing” from the local animal shelter. —

“In Perpetual Spring”


The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.”  ~Hanna Rion

Spring reminds us that we humans were not designed to hunker down in front of a computer monitor for days on end. At some point, we must wake up and engage all of our senses. We need to feel the sun on our backs and to inhale the scents of plants and rich earth.

My own garden has always been a place of healing and renewal. I’m deeply nourished by kneeling in the grass, working the soil, and tending new growth. By the the end of April, I can hardly wait to dig in — and my heart pumps peanut butter every time I drive past a local garden center or nursery. It’s all I can do to refrain from planting too early.

I’m really looking forward to expanding the herb garden outside our back door when the real danger of frost is past. In the meantime, I’m soaking up these gorgeous lines of Amy Gerstler’s, below. — CL

In Perpetual Spring
by Amy Gerstler

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.

–Reprinted from Bitter Angel, by Amy Gerstler; New York: North Point Press; 1990.–

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

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BLOG TOUR ALERT: If you missed a chance to win a free copy of my book, Writing Home, on other tour stops, here’s another. Click here to read Angie Muresan’s review and to participate in her  giveaway this week. I’ve always enjoyed Angie’s view on life — and I think you will too.

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