Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Poetry

A Gift from Maya Angelou

This morning I woke up with one of Maya Angelou’s poems on my mind. She wrote it for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. She could have written it for today. It’s nearly 6 minutes long, well worth every second. There’s a link below to a printed version of the entire poem.

Why this poem? Because of the last lines. They grabbed my gut when I first heard them. Her words took me back just two years earlier. We were deep into planned conversations at the seminary where I was then on the faculty. In addition to Rodney King being on our minds, we’d had our own share of distressing racially charged incidents. Feelings were running high.

We were placed into small groups and given a set of questions to guide conversation. We met several times in mixed groups, with student, staff and faculty involvement throughout.

I’ll never forget a black student’s comments to me. I’d asked for examples of times when black students felt ignored, unwelcome or uncomfortable. At that time the seminary had at least 35% black African-American students. His response stunned me.

He said that when he passed me in the hallways I never looked him in the eye or greeted him. It didn’t matter where I was going or what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I’d never had him in a class. He felt unwelcome and unacknowledged as a human being.

He wasn’t angry. He felt offended, and put on guard. Not looking him in the eye, not even saying ‘Good Morning’ or ‘How’s it  going today?’ was, for him, a signal that he didn’t count in my world. Or worse, I thought he wasn’t worth getting to know.

Such a ‘simple’ thing. It was hard for me to hear, yet right on the money. I agreed to try this out for several days. Not just with him, but with other students as well.

The first few days were tough. I discovered I was especially reluctant to greet male students of any color. A sign of fear, especially around black men, and fear of sending mixed messages or worse. At the same time, it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Here’s the very last stanza of Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.” You can see why it caught my heart.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 August 2017
Video of live reading found on YouTube

Trembling Heart | for Diane

Trembling heart sits on edge
waiting.

Unseen by human eyes
she calculates in vain
the cost of knowing
or not knowing
looking for solace
if not release.

Piece by painful piece
mortal heaviness
strips proud bravado
as bare as truth standing defenseless
in the dock of human finitude,
calm, grieving and grateful.

***

Today I had a checkup with my electro-physiologist. I sat waiting, trembling inside, wondering what the doctor might discover in the data from Lucy, my pacemaker.

I toyed with the possibility of not keeping these appointments. After all, for generations before me there weren’t gadgets that could make visible the rhythms of our beating hearts. Maybe there are things it’s better not to know.

When I got home, I was still teary and pondering all this. I was also aware that February marks the death anniversary of Diane, my Sister #2. She lived ten years with ALS, enduring the loss of almost everything we take for granted as human beings. I’ve posted multiple pieces about and from Diane. You can read them by clicking on the category Dear Diane, at the bottom of this post.

I wrote this poem based on my experience today at the doctor’s office. However, it also applies to Diane’s situation. I’m proud to offer it in honor of her courage, good humor, honest emotions and struggles with God and with herself. Though she lost almost all voluntary capacities (such as speech and voluntary muscle movement), she never lost her mind or her great heart.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 February 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt:
Tremble

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —

emily-dickinson-hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-pinterest

Emily’s poem for today is a gem. A gift for anyone who feels distressed about the state of this world or what lies ahead in 2017. My comments follow.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.

c. 1861

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

I hear Emily saying something like this.

  • I can’t manufacture Hope on my own or even with my friends. Sometimes people exhort me to have hope. I can’t. It’s already there. Like a little bird perched in my soul. Singing its heart out nonstop, without words or a sheet of music in front of it. Am I listening?
  • Hope isn’t linked to the time of day or night. Or to the weather and what the outlook is for tomorrow. It’s there regardless of circumstances, singing its ‘tune without the words.’ Sweet, strong, welcome, heartwarming and life affirming.
  • It seems nothing can shame or humiliate this little thing with feathers. It doesn’t shut up and it doesn’t go slinking off in defeat or humiliation. It sings out with sweet clarity, especially when things look most hopeless.
  • Hope keeps our spirits alive, ‘warm’ even in the ‘chillest land.’ It doesn’t offer us a plan of action or a map that will get us through hard times. Neither does it pretend times aren’t hard. Instead, it accompanies us through the hard times, lifting its voice in a way that lifts our spirits.
  • Best of all, Hope is a gift. It doesn’t ask anything of us, even when things get really rough. Not a crumb, not a dime. In fact, should we decide things are hopeless, I think Emily’s little Bird would just keep singing its heart out on our behalf. It doesn’t even demand that we listen.

One more thought. Whatever Hope is, it isn’t denial. In fact, I think Emily’s poem doesn’t work if Hope is supposed to erase or numb reality. Nor is Hope a crutch to get us from here to there with empty smiles pasted on our faces.

I believe Hope can open our eyes to see possibilities precisely where and when we least expect them. Often with people we least expected to meet or invite into our lives. Little Birds have exceptional eyes, not just exceptional songs.

My prayer today is that we’ll listen to Hope and be alert for unexpected possibilities, especially in what seem to be gale-force winds already on the rise.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 January 2017
Image found at pinterest.com

I Years had been from Home

dickinsonhomestead_oct2004

~~Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts

In this narrative poem, Emily Dickinson seems to have a real destination in mind. Yet she focuses almost entirely on her internal fears and consternation. What’s going on? My comments follow.

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare stolid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –

c. 1872
from an 1862 version

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Emily doesn’t tell us precisely why she’s going Home. She’s been away for Years, and seems to have left something there–“a Life I left.” What might that mean? Perhaps she means she’s moved on and doesn’t want to become entangled in her old life. Or maybe she’s looking for something missing. I don’t know. She doesn’t get that far.

Instead, she describes the gripping, painful internal storm that erupts as she approaches the front door, prepared to ask her leading question. It’s as though she suddenly realizes the importance of this event—what it might cost her. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea.

Emily’s poem reminded me of an experience I had several years ago. Though the circumstances differ, the experience raised similar feelings in me.

I was in Savannah for Dad’s memorial service. That afternoon a number of family members drove out of the city to my favorite childhood home, the scene of happy and unhappy memories. The old colonial-style house looked out over a tide-water river that still beckons to me.

Hoping for a glimpse inside the house, a few of my younger relatives went up to knock on the door and ring the bell. My heart froze with a feeling I can’t even name. What would I say if someone came to the door? I felt fear, confusion and consternation.

No one came to the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, yet still felt strange until we got in our cars and drove away. Though I loved seeing the river and the outside yard, I had no desire to meet the new owners or see the inside of this house. It contained too many convoluted memories and secrets.

Emily begins by calling her destination Home. By the time we get to the end of the poem, this Home has become a House. No longer the place it was, and not a place she needs to revisit.

The ending might sound comical if it weren’t for the magnitude of her fear. Fear, it seems, that she or her life  might get high jacked in the process. And so she flees like a thief.

I’m left wondering whether something was stolen from Emily in that House she first called Home. Or perhaps she left that life behind and doesn’t want to lose the life she now has. Either way, I applaud her courage.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 January 2017
Photo of Dickinson Homestead found at wickipedia.org

Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

emily-dickinson-stars

Yes, it’s Emily’s 154th birthday anniversary today! I’d hoped the Google Gang would mark the day with one of their short and fancy celebration videos for all us Googlers. Too bad. They missed their chance.

I barely know Emily. Read the rest of this entry »

I like to see it lap the Miles —

emily-dickinson-book-cover

How’s your imagination? Here’s a riddle from Emily Dickinson. Can you guess the answer?   Read the rest of this entry »

To fill a Gap —

Here a short poem from Emily Dickinson. Appropriate, I think, for the second Sunday in Advent. My personal response follows.

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it –
Block it up
With Other – and ‘twill yawn the more –
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Irreplaceable loss. The Gap can’t be disguised, no matter how hard you try. Denial magnifies gaping emptiness, draws attention to it. The missing Thing is one of a kind, Irreplaceable.

Emily’s poem reminds me of my vain attempts to ‘make it better.’ Or worse, Read the rest of this entry »

They shut me up in Prose —

bird-flying-free

In this somewhat grimly humorous poem, Emily compares her childhood as a ‘little Girl’ with the way ‘They’ treat her as an adult. My comments follow.

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still’ –

Still! Could themselves have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity –
And Laugh – No more have I –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

What a great word — ‘still.’ Read the rest of this entry »

I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —

harvest-moon-sept-2016

Here’s another beauty from Emily Dickinson. I’m drawn to it not simply because I sometimes call myself Queen Elouise, but because it captures so well the difference between belonging to Them and belonging to Grace. It also suggests what we need right now in this world of stunning beauty, visible misery and stunning injustice. My comments follow.

I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading – too –

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace –
Unto supremest name –
Called to my Full – The Crescent dropped –
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.

My second Rank – too small the first –
Crowned – Crowing – on my Father’s breast –
A half unconscious Queen –
But this time – Adequate – Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Emily’s poem reminds me of Read the rest of this entry »

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind —

chaos-in-markets-britain

Here’s a timely poem from Emily Dickinson. She captures what it’s like to be at loose ends. Unable to think straight, sort out feelings, or fit oneself into the new reality. My personal comments follow.

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls – upon a Floor.

c. 1864

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Things undone aren’t easily put back together. Especially when accompanied by Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: