Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

To Gild a Lily

I don’t recall having heard this phrase before this week. It appears to be a mix-up of a phrase from a Shakespeare play. But the verse it comes from has moved me all week.

Gilded lily

It’s so easy to want to try to change people. But, quite often, when we try to do that, I think we don’t count the cost or think about what it really would mean to do so.  Sometimes what is lost by the “improvement” is just too great.

I’m not totally against change. But it seems to me that many of the little annoyances we wish our friends or family would change are really so very consistent with what it means for them to be themselves that wishing a specific thing to be different or “better” is to wish lobbed off some of what makes that person who they are.


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(to me, at least)

I am reading a book called The Body Remembers, which is helping me understand a bit more about how my memory works–both why I apparently (so they tell me) remember things so well, and why I have such a propensity to post-traumatic stress. Fascinating stuff, and I am enjoying the book and the things that are clicking and making sense to me as I read, though I am only on page 37, where I discovered this fun poem by a Danish poet, Piet Hein:

Rhyme and Reason

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
But try as she would she could never detect
which was the cause and which the effect.

Piet Hein. What a fascinating guy. Not, perhaps, your ordinary poet. Fascinating enough that he wrote his poetry in several different languages. I also discovered that he:

…was a genius with many different sides. In addition to discovering the Soma cube, he created a new geometrical form, the “super-ellipse”, which is something in between the rectangle and the ellipse. The form also came in a 3D version and was then called “the super egg” or “the super-ellipsoide”. As an artist and constructor, Piet Hein in the 50’s and 60’s gave form to beautiful pieces of furniture, and he contributed to make “Scandinavian design” become an international conception. Internationally he always tried building a bridge between the “hard” technical and natural sciences and the “soft” humanistic subjects.

Here a few more of his poems, known, for some reason I haven’t looked up yet, as “Grooks”:

Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

(I’ve got a few problems like that, which obsessively and obnoxiously seem to keep trying to prove their worth!)

This is a brilliant idea, I think:

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No – not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

And finally, this one, which gave me a smile for how relevant an encouragement it was to me tonight:

Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time.

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To make words sing
Is a wonderful thing–
Because in a song
Words last so long.

(“To Make Words Sing” by Langston Hughes)

Music has been one of God’s great provisions for helping me survive when I am weak and hurting.

I am the kind of person who, when a song moves me, likes to listen to it over and over. Words put to music last. They stick with me. They stir up feelings, and since my memory is an emotional one, I can recall the truths easier when a song stores the words in a feeling place in my brain.

Sometimes songs are sermons to me, when my brain is in such a fog from exhaustion or pain that I can’t make sense of the other kind of sermons.

Sometimes songs express the prayers of my heart when I can’t form my own words.

Sometimes songs put shape to the gratitude and praises that are in my heart but are hard to see, fallen as they are between the cracks of my pain or tiredness.

With songs and hymns and spiritual songs, I am given the gift of words when I don’t have my own.

It is hard to remember truth when I’m in pain. But when I listen to words of truth set to music, over and over again, not just the words, but the truth and the feelings that go with the words seep down into the hurting places and really minister to me. And I don’t forget those kinds of words.

When a friend speaks truth to me in my pain, I might bristle, but when truth comes to me in song, I find that my bristles sort of deflate (oops, there I go mixing metaphors again).

I’ve included this quote recently on another post, but it fits here as well:

i hear many people telling me they leave church ‘uplifted,’ but few tell me they leave challenged (to live as Christ asks of them). i try to program music that does both. (comment from Scott Gray on metacatholic’s post, “Muting the Psalms”)

Spiritual music encourages me, challenges me, changes my perspective, stirs my heart, adds feeling to the truths I know. and gives expression to what I feel about and towards God.

Do you have words, which you are especially glad to be able to sing, because the song makes the words last so long?

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Well, that may not be the point of the poem I read today, but when I read it, and my brain did its thing of connecting the feeling I got when I read it with any similar feelings, I ended up with a hodgepodge in my head with these three things overlapping, and the word “forgiveness” holding them all together:

Matthew 18:21,22 (Peter and Jesus)
I Corinthians 13 (Paul)
“Addition” (Langston Hughes)


7 x 7 + love =
An amount
Infinitely above:
7 x 7 – love.

(from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, p. 229)

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On this first day of spring break, my children are staying an extra day with their dad. I’ve been meandering my way through work I need to do and restfulness I need to have. In the middle of doing some cleaning, there was a holler at my front door, “Mailman”. Hooray, my package from Amazon had arrived!

I had a certificate for Amazon money, and placed an order last week. Some time ago,  somebody’s blog somewhere (I’m thinking, if my memory serves me right, it might have been Musings of a Christian Psychologist), introduced me to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

I’ve never been too great at understanding poetry. But, every once in a while, I’m surprised to find how the poems of a particular artist resonate deeply around in my heart, putting beautiful words to some of my complicated thoughts and feelings and making me ponder and feel things I’d never otherwise have thought about.

Ruth Bell Graham was one of those types of poets. I realized, as I looked up more of Langston Hughes’ poetry, that he was another. So, into my Amazon shopping cart went The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, just waiting for the day I had some Amazon money sitting around. By the time that day came, the other item in my cart was the CD Long Walk to Freedom, by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, of South Africa.

617 pages of Langston Hughes’ poems and nearly a hundred more pages of notes. How nice. Some of his poems make me laugh. Some are astoundingly simple. Some of his poems make me feel like crying. Some disturb me deeply. What a nice treat to have so many different emotions stirred in little tiny bits.

It’s time for me to end my little pause, reading random poems and listening to beautifully stirring music. I’ve got work to get back to, but I leave you with one of Langston Hughes’ poems. It is impossible, I think, to find one poem that represents the variety in his work, so this one is chosen for no deep purpose other than that I just read it, and it made me smile at how simply he states a seldom admitted, but quite profound reality.

It Gives Me Pause

I would like to be a sinner
Sinning just for fun
But I always suffer so
When I get my sinning done.

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I’m going to share part of a poem. And I’d better warn you ahead of time, it’s morbid. Like the Great Word from my previous post, I heard about this poem in the book When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin, a journalist who grew up in Zimbabwe.  (I realized today that I didn’t tell you where I’d gotten that word from. So, now you have the reference, in case you wondered. You can read the first chapter of the book here.)

The poem is about death. Peter Godwin quotes it when he is talking about Zulu graves, which are dug under aloe plants, because they are poisonous to hyenas. Hyenas, of course, are scavengers, and so this is a way of protecting the bodies of those who have died. I’m not quoting the poem to make a point about death. Nor am I quoting it to make the same point the author makes. You can read the whole thing to discover that point (follow the link with the title below). I’m quoting the following part of the poem to make a point about  life.

The Hyaenas
by Rudyard Kipling

After the burial-parties leave
   And the baffled kites have fled
The wise hyaenas come out at eve
   To take account of the dead.

How he died and why he died
   Troubles them not a whit
They snout the bushes and stones aside
   And dig till they come to it.

They are only resolute that they shall eat
   That they and their mates shall thrive,
And they know that the dead are safer meat
   Than the weakest thing alive.

“The weakest thing alive”.

I have been thinking about some friends lately who are feeling very weakened. Well, to be honest, there are days when I still feel impossibly and overwhelmingly weak. There are days when I am not too encouraged by people who comment on how strong I seem to be and their admiration for how I’m making it through various trials. They may see strength, but it feels like I must be faking whatever they see, because in reality I’m about to collapse just around the next corner.

When I, myself, recently alluded to a friend’s strength in an awful situation, she was adamant that she is not strong, that she feels weak and broken and barely able to keep going.

And so, in one way, I want to make space for that weakness. To not forget to grieve with the one who feels weak and broken. To acknowledge how real that place of weakness is. To not minimize it with platitudes. To give comfort to the place where my friend is hurting and afraid and weak.

But, in another way, I want to acknowledge that the weakest thing alive is still…well, alive. And that is a good thing. That, in itself, is a huge thing. That is a sign of strength. The hyenas know it is so.

You might feel weak today, even when a friend is looking at your situation and  calling you strong (saying not so helpful things like, “I could never make it through what you are going through”). And I want to say, You’re both right. You’re right about your weakness.  And your friend is right in calling you strong.

You are acutely aware of your own weakness.  And your feelings which recognize that weakness are not lying. God, who knows we are but dust also knows your weakness (and is not dismayed nor surprised by it).

But you are also strong. Today, again, whether it was conscious or not, you have chosen life. You got out of bed when you felt dismay and despair with your first breath. You took that breath and chose to keep going. You are still going, no matter how stumbling and flailing you are in the going. You may not know where the next breath will come from. You may not be able to comprehend how you are going to take the next step. You may feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. You may feel that you are “the weakest thing alive”.

My friend, that gasping for breath and stumbling along with the next step is its own kind of strength, and I want to celebrate that with you and for you, even while I grieve alongside of you the brokenness and pain and feel your uncertainty about how you are going to keep going.  I don’t know how you are going to make it. I don’t know what the next step should be. But, I want to tell you that I’m glad that you are still living and still going, in spite of all that has happened to you. All the things that you have faced and are continuing to face have weakened you. But you are still going, and you are not “safe meat” for the hyenas.

Who am I talking to now that I’ve switched to the 2nd person? No one in particular and at the same time a few people specifically (most of whom don’t even read this blog). Maybe I’m giving myself a pep talk here. Certainly, the poem encouraged me in a way that also made me smile (A two-for-one bonus!). And it made me think of and pray for one friend, in particular, who is feeling especially weak tonight.

Maybe I’m talking to you, too. I’m not sure.

If you are feeling yourself to be the weakest thing alive, I hope that even in that, you can stop a moment, smile and acknowledge the strength God has still granted you. The strength to keep going against all odds, when you have felt the pull to collapse and give up, from every side and many times.

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A Nighttime Prayer

One of the things I have liked about attending different churches through the years is exploring each new hymnbook for songs I’ve never heard before. I’m currently attending a United Methodist church and the hymn repertoire is large and rich.

Here are some of the words from a new song I’ve discovered. Several nights a week I play it on the piano and sing it to my kids as a lullaby before they go to bed. The music is a beautiful, lilting Swedish folk tune.

Thy holy wings, O Savior, spread gently over me,
and let me rest securely through good and ill in thee.
O be my strength and portion,my rock and hiding place,
and let my every moment be lived with thy grace…

…And take into thy keeping thy children great and small,
and while we sweetly slumber, enfold us one and all.

I’m off to bed now, not having completed (nor even started to be honest) the work I needed to make a dent in tonight. I’m walking through a mixture of grief and burnout and joy and healing and sorrow. That rather intense combination seems to be messing with my nervous system, so in addition to being worn out, my legs are twitching occasionally. It’s not painful, but distracting and annoying. I’m praying for sweet slumber, enfolded in God’s love.

Tomorrow’s a new day to live every moment with his grace. Every moment. Not one exempt. Not one good moment occurs outside of his grace. Not any of my bad moments, not even the worst of the worst. That is part of what I believe and trust is true, in ways I can’t always clearly see or comprehend.

O be my strength and portion, my rock and hiding place…

(“Thy Holy Wings, O Savior,” by Caroline V. Sandell-Berg 1865; trans. by Gracia Grindal, 1983; p. 502, The United Methodist Hymnal)

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