The other day I curled up in a ball on the couch, beset by a conflict with an acquaintance. There was little I could do to remedy the situation or even begin a process of reconciliation. The lack of control I felt (and when do we ever really have control?) incapacitated me.
No neighbors were home. No close friends were on Facebook Chat. Even my dog preferred to stay lost in a pile of fleece blankets, not even deigning to lift his snout to my voice.
Words of prayer wouldn’t come. I imagined myself lifting this burden, lifting the people involved, who no doubt considered me their enemy. I would feel peace for a moment—a gentle lightening—then doze and wake with a pit in my stomach. You might think at a time like this, I’d default to an area of strength. But that was the last thing I wanted.
I’m a poet and reader of poetry. But in truly desperate times, I want to avoid poetry. If I decide to read at all, I’d rather escape into a novel or browse articles online. It’s not that I find the poetry irrelevant. I’m afraid of the relevance I might find.
Later that afternoon, out of some measure of guilt for accomplishing nothing, I suppose, I picked up a book of William Stafford poems. And I read the poem that would tell me why I often avoid reading poetry in the first place:
You Reading This, Be Ready
Starting here, what do
you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps
along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers,
what softened sound
from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring
a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect
that you carry wherever
you go right now?
Are you waiting for time to show
you some better thoughts?
When you turn around,
starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found;
carry into evening
all that you want from this day.
This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it
What can anyone give you
greater than now,
starting here, right in this room,
when you turn around?
So many questions from a man years dead. So much expected of me, a 40-something mom just trying to get through the day, pulling a blanket over her face because the sunlight creeping along her floor illuminates crumbs and fingerprints of peanut butter.
What do I want to remember, William? Nothing. Nothing from this day, at least. I want my conflict to go away. I fact, I’d like some people to just disappear, to have never come into my life. These are hard words, I know. And then you have the audacity to imply that in my broken state, I can bring a “gift for the world” with my very breath, that somehow a purpose still remains in this dismal afternoon.
Am I waiting for time to show me some better thoughts? Yes, actually; I am waiting for another time. I can have no pleasant thoughts today. I can only grieve for what’s been lost. But maybe—just maybe—that’s OK.
My “breathing respect” for the day does not have to manifest itself as a shout of glee. Simply breathing and accepting the day, with God’s help, is enough. Even when Paul says that we should dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” he does not command us to think about “nice” things (Philippians 4:8 ESV). I had made a hard relational decision that I knew hurt people in the moment but was still the right thing to do. The immediate consequences were far from lovely, but the outcome, however and whenever it would work itself out, would fit into God’s larger, purer, inexplicable plan.
Even so, Stafford’s poem made me dizzy when I read it, the thought of “carry[ing] into evening/all that [I wanted] from this day.” What I had to carry was my admission that I want, more than anything, an easy life, even though Jesus tells me to pick up my cross. What I want to want is a life free from fear. Jesus has already given me that, but I need to choose, in these moments, to live it. If I can’t hand over my fear when it really counts, in my own personal moment of terror, what’s the use of following Him at all?
This is what poetry can do for us more powerfully than any other literary form. It calls us to presence, not escape. It challenges us, often in just a few short lines and distilled images, to “turn around” and face ourselves. Jesus asks us to confront the reality of our motivations. Paul exhorts us to hold our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). In fact, the Christian faith is all about loving God and others in the moment, even when circumstances tell us it would be easier to withdraw. Only in practicing the “greater than now,/ starting here, right in this room” can we begin living the hope set before us. Poetry helps us take a moment to reflect on whatever room we’re sitting in, no matter how blissful or difficult the setting. Often, reading poetry is not an escape. But be not afraid. The hope set before us is now.
Photography by Huw Jones