Owls outside my window call across the valley every evening. Carrying on for hours, their voices, soft and low, a mantra that gently soothes, and I think how much such beauty as their soothing voices can do to calm and heal in a world where so many are filled with anxiety and suffering.
Signs of impermanence abound. Our California garden is going to seed, and every day, gophers eat through plants that have taken many months of nurturing care. Prayer flags, colorful and new a few years back, are now faded, worn, and tattered. Fires. Disease. Hurricanes. Unrest in the streets. Rumors of war. Everywhere, life is tenuous. How is it possible to live in joy while the world around us or perhaps even we ourselves are in the process of fading into diminishment? Most of us want to turn away from suffering and loss. There’s already too much trauma and suffering around us. It’s painful, and usually it seems easier or better to avoid the pain rather than reflect on it, though reflection helps us learn how to live.
Recently, I attend a poetry reading here in Santa Cruz, California in celebration of the release of local poet, Jory Post’s new book of prose poems, The Extra Year. Post’s poems hold life’s small moments and details in sharp, attentive focus, and connect us deeply to our humanity–our vulnerabilities and finiteness. Post’s writing takes the seemingly commonplace moment of shaving, turning in bed to touch your partner or sitting in the waiting room with others at a doctor’s office, and reawakens us to remember the preciousness of breath and being, even in the midst of change, suffering, and difficulty–or perhaps it is because of these. His poem “Wailing,” is a good example. The poem begins with Post’s description of how he was informed of his uncle’s death, then learns soon after that a dear friend has died. Post explains turns to data to soothe him when he feels the weight of grief pulling him under. “I discover 6, 316 people die each hour. 151,600 each day,” he writes. “Over 1 million every week. I spent the day trying to convince myself my three friends were in good company, until I finally gave up, broke down and wailed for all 1 million.” In the piling up of human death and connecting that greater grief to his own, Post moves past barren data into the felt reality of loss, enabling us to touch the humanness hidden inside the numbers.
Post’s poems help us to lament. Lamentation is an old word we don’t often use, but it precisely indicates the inner feeling people have when sorrows weigh them down, becoming unbearable. The Online Etymology Dictionary describes its meaning as ‘”a wailing, moaning, a weeping,”‘ an extension derived from the Proto-Indo European root meaning “to shout, cry.” Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding or satisfying explanation for. These experiences are painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. We need to make space in our lives for lamentation, allow ourselves to notice our vulnerable spots, to touch our finiteness, and open into an acceptance of our limitations until such time as we can grow into a wider place of being.
We have so many plans for our lives, things we want to do or become for ourselves or for others. We make lists and plans, work toward goals. At some point, however, we realize we will run out of time. We live within limitations either imposed from the outside that we cannot move or those of our own making. Though we may want to be more or different than we are, we fall short. As Post describes in his poem, “Role Model,” “There was a time I considered myself a role model…I was sure, dedicated, driven in my quest for knowledge and truth. But something shifted, as if the tumblers in locks had magically been altered. Thirty years later I can hear the brass tumblers realigning themselves. I may publish another book. This time it will be about what I don’t know.” Touching uncertainty, affirming the mystery of our existence–connects us to a deeper awareness of wonder and fuller appreciation of the world around us. As we allow ourselves to contemplate change and loss, we can learn to let go of old fears or certainties that hinder us, and to make space for renewed vision and purpose that, hopefully, will eventually arrive.
In his poem, “Snail’s Pace,” Post describes himself down on the floor of his house, aiming to explore his world like a snail might–a snail Post had discovered outside his window ledge. Moving slowly across the room, face next to the floor, Post experiences his world from an entirely different perspective. While it’s humorous to imagine him inching along, the poem helps us see that in altering our pace and perspective, we alter our understanding. Similarly, in Post’s poem, “Color,” Post carries the reader through an examination of the names of color–a journey that carries one across the world, embracing the fabulous reality of vision. The world grows alive and is discovered anew as we examine it carefully, give it close attention.
In her essay, “The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness” in the August 4, 2014 issue of Orion, Terry Tempest Williams writes. “In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life. No plant or animal petitions for mercy. There are no complaints rendered or excuses made. There is only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end.” Awareness of our inevitable end is difficult to look into the eye. Suffering can carry one into a kind of wilderness–a wild, forlorn place where a person might feel alone, without bearings, and filled with longing. Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding of or satisfying explanation for. These experiences can be painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. Nevertheless, even as we experience a sense of loss and isolation, we might simultaneously be brought to a discovery of life’s preciousness, and our interdependence on each other and the natural world. Not all pain can be assuaged, but perhaps there is another kind of healing when we allow ourselves to recognize our limitations.
“I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world is wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.” Williams goes on to say,
“Wilderness is not a place of isolation but contemplation.”
This is what Post’s poems in The Extra Year do: they carry us into a place of contemplation. They return us to see a way of living where we can feel whole, even in the midst of loss and pain. Stepping into wilderness, whether physical or metaphorical, allows us to see life from a wider perspective. In coping with pancreatic cancer, Post explains how his physical appearance changed and people sometimes don’t recognize him. Alongside the changes, losses and challenging experiences revealed in the poems resides a deeper wholeness–an appreciation for community and for the lives of those he holds most dear. In his poem, “Ponder,” Post writes, “Sometimes I ponder the miracles of my life: have I made it all up?” The miracles Post ponders are everyday experiences, “The crisp view across the bay that outlines Pacific Grove and Jack’s Peak accentuated on the horizon. The French toast at Silver Spur drenched in butter and maple syrup that soothes my stomach. My granddaughters–Georgia’s determination and Hannah’s love of the pun.” Post’s poems call us to recognize that to live means to participate in both suffering and joy. Though they may be mixed together with grief, it is the relationships we open to and nurture that give us meaning and joy. Sorrow and deep gladness do not exist in isolation from each other. To live is the opportunity to walk this earth in relationship with all we encounter. As Post suggests in “A Recipe for Closure,” in thinking about the sum of a life we should go ahead and open up, “Make some noise. Remind us of who you were. We remember. We mourn. We celebrate.”
We need poems like those of Jory Post’s in his book, The Extra Year, to help us remember that in our difficult days, the hours or years of suffering we encounter, others have walked this path before us, and are walking with us even now. Endings can also be openings. Though bereft, we can also dance, sing, or write and in that vulnerable openness, we emerge from shadow. Like owls outside calling from the forests outside window, poems like Jory Posts call us into a wider world that gives voice to life’s shared story. Sometimes, stories and poems can heal, restore, and save us.