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Posts Tagged ‘empty nest’

poem is on futon 

 

Respite

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Day after quiet day passes.

I speak to no one besides the dog.

To her,

I murmur much I would not otherwise say.

 

We make plans

then break them on a moment’s whim.

She agrees;

though sometimes bringing

to my attention a small blue ball.

 

Passing the fig tree

I see it is

suddenly huge with green fruit,

which may ripen or not.

 

Near the gate,

I stop to watch

the sugar ants climb the top bar

and cross at the latch,

as they have now in summer for years.

 

In this way I study my life.

It is,

I think today,

like a dusty glass vase.

 

A little water,

a few flowers would be good,

I think;

but do nothing. Love is far away.

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

 

If a friend told you her life was a dusty glass vase you might ask what’s going on, give her a consoling hug and pass on the number of a good therapist. Somehow Jane Hirshfield says the very same thing and she sounds . . . self-satisfied? Pleased? Zen at the very least. That’s the Hirshfield magic. Her meditative air fills her poems, dark though they may be, with light.

 

Take another look at that dusty glass vase. Yes, it’s empty, un-filled, unused for some time. But not depressing. An empty vase is rich with possibility and ready for beauty. Ready for a little water and a few flowers.

 

I think;/but do nothing the speaker says. Around her is a world of activity. The dog pushes the ball to her feet, the fig tree bursts with new fruit, the busy ants march onward. She watches but doesn’t feel the desire to be busy herself.

 

What wondrous stillness in this poem. Each experience—dog, tree, sugar ant, sunshine—is presented as if Hirshfield were holding them out in her palm one by one for us to see. My, my, look at this, she seems to say quietly. And so she draws us in to her meditative state. The short lines only heighten the quality of attention. There’s a precision and delicacy at work that bring to mind Helen Mirren’s unmatched articulation. I’d really love to hear her read this poem aloud.

 

It ends so softly that the drama and tension of the last two lines nearly escaped me. We seem to be headed down the path of lugubriosity—

 

Love is far away

 

but it’s only a set-up for the line that follows. Suddenly we find ourselves bathed in wonder and beauty:

 

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

I left “Respite” on a Baltimore sidewalk in mid-summer. Since then I’ve been chiding myself for letting it languish away in my photo stream. But now I’m glad I waited so long to post it. Turns out it’s very of-the-moment and on-the-nose this early November afternoon.

 

Hirshfield describes an in-between space, one between observation and action. For some time these past few weeks I’ve been sitting in the same—but without the equanimity she has. My in-between is more malaise than meditation. More a wet noodle than a coiled spring.

 

Readers, bear with me a moment. Guests are arriving to the pity party HIrshfield so wisely avoids, and I want to look at each face before I sneak out the back to a more festive event.

 

The first guest is the re-boot of my years-ago empty nest syndrome, as all four of my children made moves—nearly simultaneously—that brought home the fact that none will live ever live within three hours of us, and that my husband and I are more and more extraneous to their lives, as it should be, of course. That guest came in early fall and got the other guests riled up, guests who had been in the room the whole year, ignored by me but suddenly wanting attention. A dead dog. A mother-in-law, who had lived with us, deceased nearly a year now. Serious health issues plaguing my extended family.

 

And then there are the lesser guests who behave as if they were the guests of honor: a finished novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, a novel half-heartedly and unsuccessfully marketed and subsequently rejected; a new novel stale and plodding; new writing projects begun and abandoned; my blog set aside and now so judgy of my laziness.

 

Tiny problems. First-world problems. Nothing to look at here except I’m usually a duck’s back to problems. And getting side-tracked by such commonplace experiences was making me feel like  . . . well, like a dusty glass vase.

 

Enter this poem, which I had positioned mostly as a pun (the futon inviting “Respite,” you see). The poem has tapped me on the shoulder, very gently, and said, There’s better light over here, let’s examine these things together. The in-between place, it turns out, isn’t a dead zone, it isn’t a place where nothing happens and nothing ever will because I was never good enough anyway and people get sick and the lucky ones grow old and die withered. No. It’s a mid-day nap. It’s a sit-down. It’s a church pew. It’s a fertile place, a place to gather the energy of wonder and stillness.

 

I’ve mentioned before a favorite poem of childhood, one I can still recite from memory, and I do hate to repeat myself, but A.A. Milne’s “Halfway Down” belongs to this moment and it’s running through my head, so here goes. The poem begins:

 

Halfway down the stairs

is a stair

where I sit

 

In the second stanza Milne switches to “halfway up the stairs” (emphasis mine), then muses that this chosen step is not up and not down but has its own geography—

 

It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!

 

Even as a little girl I liked that halfway down stair. A good place to observe what was happening above or below, and there was always a lot going on in our household of thirteen. Anyway, that’s where I am, halfway down the stairs, patient now, observing, biding my time to move, up or down, I don’t know.

 

I’m re-posting Hirshfield’s biography from a past post:

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

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poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench

 

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

 

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

 

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

 

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

 

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

 

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

 

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

 

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

 

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

 

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 

IMG_1980

 

Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.

 

All part of the never-ending cycle of life.

 

Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.

 

I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.

 

Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–

 

that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away

 

Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.

 

I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.

 

I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name

 

–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.

 

There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.

 

Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.

 

ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.

 

She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.

 

Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.

 

I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:

 

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!

 

 

 

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