Snapdragons

For Anita

For the little girl
For whom flowers
Were not enough

Unless they could
Breathe fire and
Nip your fingers

I treasure her
Fierce imagination,
Her gentle heart

And her eye for
Beauty that sees
Beyond surfaces

Note: I got an email that the Mother’s Day flowers might not have arrived, so I made these instead. Love you, Mama.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Divergence

For Mother’s Day

Fused, viscerally
Blood and bone
Bodies knitted
Together, whole

Then – over time
A gradual shifting
So small, so slow
It happens invisibly

And yet somehow
Further and further
We drift apart
The world remaking
Itself

Painless on the surface
Yet violent beneath
Pressure builds
Rivers of magma flow
Propelling the future
Cracking and colliding

Until an ocean stands

Between our bodies

It’s natural, necessary –
How the world works
Forging mountains
Carving valleys

You only have to love
A child to understand
Plate tectonics as
Magnificent cruelty

Once close, now distant
Yet always bearing
The outline of where
We once were one

Note: The image of this poem came to me so clearly, but coming up with a title was a real bear. At first I played around with ‘Drifting’, forgetting I had already written a poem with the same title. Right now, I’m calling it ‘Divergence’, but I don’t feel this really connects with the warm, tender place it was written from. Hopefully I can come up with something that feels like it fits a bit better in the future.

Photo by Rainer Krienke on Unsplash

Gratitude is enough

Yesterday, I cooked a double batch of pasta sauce and took it to a local friend who has just welcomed a baby.

It was such a joy to help out in this tangible sort of way – and it was interesting getting to be on the giving side, since for the past few years I was so much more often on the receiving side.

During pregnancy, after childbirth, and then during cancer treatment, there were so many times when people came through for me, showing unbelievable kindness in ways large and small.

I was endlessly grateful for this, but there was also a part of me that felt guilty. Because I was aware that things aren’t equal – that people were doing more for me than I could do for them in return.

But as I set the dinner on the doorstep and walked away, I realised: gratitude is enough.

Sometimes we have a feeling that we shouldn’t accept any favours that we wouldn’t be able to repay to others. And it’s true that reciprocity is at the foundation of human relationships.

But reciprocity doesn’t have to mean doing the same thing. It can just mean offering something else in return – and gratitude is a precious offering all its own.

During my lowest moments, I would sit and weep, thinking about the burden I was placing on others and asking myself ‘how am I ever going to repay this’, knowing it would be impossible.

Generosity becomes an act so much bigger than us. It feels like it flows through the universe like an invisible force. I wasn’t able to do nice things specifically for the people who helped me, certainly not to the degree that they offered support. It’s not that obvious or direct a system of exchange. But I am now in a position to be able to pay it forward.

I know that the mum I did this small act of kindness for will in turn find a way to pay it forward to someone else.

And even if she doesn’t, that’s okay.

Because in the act of giving, and expressing appreciation, the cycle is complete.

It makes me sad to think of how many times I short-circuited this process. Because guilt gets in the way of gratitude. When we are measuring up, comparing contributions, or worrying about what we will need to do in the future, it creates a strange kind of debt that might not exist otherwise.

Because we can’t be thankful in a way that gives giving a conclusion, it feels like it remains open and hanging, both for the giver and the receiver. The receiver is too lost in their anxiety to connect with real thankfulness. And the giver can wind up absorbing some of this anxiety, feeling like maybe there is an unpaid debt, or even feeling bad that they triggered this cycle in the person they were trying to help.

It’s hard to be gracious when we are feeling vulnerable. When we most need help can be the trickiest time to accept it with warmth and happiness.

It has been so empowering to feel self-sufficient in a way that was not available to me during my treatment. But I know that times will come again when I need to lean on others more than I do now.

I hope when that time comes, I can remember what a gift it feels like to receive someone else’s gratitude, or simply to know that one’s own small action is making the world a better place.

Photo by Oktavisual Project on Unsplash

Crossings

The people that come into our lives
Crossing paths, or deeply intertwining
Become the scaffolding
On which we fix our own
Affections and inspirations
Precious, even when paths diverge

In ways that go beyond understanding
Our lives become knotted together
Like ivy climbing brickwork heights
Impossible to scale alone, but secure
In the companionship of others
Forging their own paths to the sun

What happens when one of those plants
Becomes uprooted from the soil of vitality
Or senselessly dwindles and dries
Crossing into the land beyond life?
How do we disentangle their existence
Without ripping apart our own?

Pause – the skeleton of stems they leave
Was never meant to be pruned
Or plucked out and uprooted
We grow around them, and with them
Onwards, upwards, outwards, inwards
Cradling their history in our own stories

Note: I heard today that a very dear friend lost someone who mattered deeply to them. This was in some ways a complicated relationship, but a very great loss. I always find myself so uncomfortable with the familiar words of condolence – they feel so inadequate, and there are so many circumstances they seem saccharine and out of place. Yet in one of the most beautiful parts of being human, we do absorb a bit of the grief carried by people we love. I wanted to give something to this friend, meeting them in their place of sorrow with love. This poem is what came out – in love and remembrance.

Note 2: This one lingered in drafts for a long time. I finally pressed publish on 19 September, the day of the online memorial for our family’s last remaining grandparent, Grandma Joanne. I haven’t been in the right place to write something specifically for her, but I wanted to finally put this into the world in her honour.

Photo by A.C. Smith

Decisions

The path forks
I retreat
Into the vacuum
Of my whirring mind
Determined to polish my decision
To a high sheen of certainty
To imagine a future
So controlled
I can see my own face
Reflected in its surface

But the faster I spin
The more lost I become
In a black hole
Of my own creation
My core feels empty, expanding
(Was that once a bellybutton?)
To a fathomless void
Ready to swallow me whole
Then I remember
There is another choice

Instead of looking within
For answers
I turn my gaze outwards
For adventures
The risk of the unknown
Is somehow less terrifying
Than being alone
In my own sterile consciousness
The best decisions are experiments
In the laboratory of life

Note: This poem was inspired by a moment in a counselling session – where my counsellor observed I was withdrawing into a vacuum. This is a familiar, if unhelpful pattern. But by connecting, and trying to make decisions by doing rather than preempting, a whole new world of possibilities opens. I figured I could probably articulate the feeling better in a poem than in a blog post, but it’s nice to be able to remember its genesis.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Tin

For Zachary

Ten years
Named for tin
Because after that all time
It is strong and durable, so they say

But I find myself thinking of tinkers
With hammers and shears
Perhaps marriage is
That too

There is beauty in the dented, mended watering can
That can still hold water, that can still nourish life

Note: I wrote this poem on 20 January when the idea was fresh – for once not leaving my anniversary present until the last moment!

I hadn’t planned the structure of this before I started writing, but the lines seemed to grow in a beautiful crescendo in the first stanza. I wanted this mirrored, paired, equal in the second.

Likewise with the last two lines – I wanted them coupled, to match.

The effectiveness of this will depend on typography, but they line up pretty well from this view.

Somehow, the idea of having ten lines also felt right.

There is so much more I could say, but the love lurks between the lines.

Photo by Steve Mushero on Unsplash

The bird’s nest

For Holocaust Memorial Day

Preserved
As a necessary
Monument
To brutality

A wind blows
Through
The draughty
Barracks

Shelves
For piled bodies
On the cusp of
Silence

Empty
Except memories
Just walls now
Floor

People lived here
Died
Survived
Human souls

Death
Shadows
Watching
Witnesses

And yet
In the rafters
Life
Endures

A bird’s nest
Empty
Preserved
Life

Photo by Serafima Lazarenko on Unsplash

Note: Many years ago, I visited Auschwitz with Zach while he was living in Poland. The image of this bird’s nest has stayed with me ever since. I can’t remember now if I took a picture – or if this felt inappropriate in this strange place – but I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.

Beware

Beware the ones who say
I’ve read that
To every book you mention
Who always have a counterexample 
Or a riposte, who are never caught
Without a ready answer
And exist in a state of impermeable poise

Beware the ones who file away
Knowledge like munitions
Trapped in an intellectual arms race
Who consume to increase their power
Rather than to appreciate their ignorance
And cannot understand anything
That cannot be put into words

Beware the ones who read
To tick boxes on a list
Who aim to dominate with language
Rather than to have their hearts
Rent open and repaired again
Or to savour the simple pleasure
Of escaping into another’s mind

Note: I have met many of these people. It’s easy to feel intimidated by encyclopaedic knowledge, but now to me it mostly looks sad.

But this poem was written with equal intent as a warning to myself. Because I have also been that person.

Reading is not the same as understanding. And understanding is not the same as empathising. I just need a little reminder from time to time.

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Where’s mama?

(This poem / might be triggering / for some people)

Where’s mama?
She’s working
Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s cooking dinner
She’s writing
She’s busy
Where’s mama?
Tonight she’s meeting a friend

Where’s mama?
She’s off on a visit to the doctor
Where’s mama?
She’s cleaning
It makes her feel calmer
Where’s mama?
She just needs a moment alone
Sometimes we feel better
After a good cry
Where’s mama?
She’ll be out of the shower in a minute

Where’s mama?
She’s getting groceries
Where’s mama?
She’s acting normal
Where’s mama?
She’s buying a bathrobe
She’s texting a friend
She’s looking in the mirror
She’s looking away
She’s vacuuming up her hair
Where’s mama?
She’s laughing
She’s playing
She’s happy

Where’s mama?
She’s making a phone call
Where’s mama?
She needs to go
She’s visiting the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’ll be home soon

Where’s mama?
She’s sleeping
Where’s mama?
She’s getting dressed
She needs to do things slowly now
Where’s mama?
She’s taking her pills
She’s buying a cane
She’s trying to eat
Where’s mama?
She’s tired

Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s still in the bathroom

Where’s mama?
It’s just for a night
Where’s mama?
She’s home again, see?
Where’s mama?
She’s calling the doctor
She’s listening to the doctor
She isn’t saying anything to the doctor
Where’s mama?
She’s going back to the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’s packing
She’s writing a list
She’s cleaning again
Where’s mama?
She’s looking for her phone charger
Where’s mama?
It’s just for a night

Where’s mama?
She’s in bed
She’s looking out the window
Where’s mama?
She’s in bed
She’s staring at the wall
Where’s Mama?
Shall we remind her
She needs to drink water
C’mon, let’s tell her she can do it
Where’s mama?
She’s so happy to see you
Where’s mama?
Maybe later
She’ll be able to play

Where’s mama?
She’s googling and googling and googling
She’s sorting delivery for dinner
She’s trying again to eat
Where’s mama?
She’s yelling at the insurance company
She’s using words we don’t say
Unless we’re talking to
Insurance companies
Where’s mama?
She’s ordering her pills
Where’s mama?
She’s sorting her pills
Where’s mama?
She’s taking her pills
Oh wait, sorry –
She’s ordering more pills

Where’s mama?
She’s in the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’s right here on the phone
Say hello
Where’s mama?
I can hear her smiling at you
Where’s mama?
She’s in a special home for sick people
She lives there now
Remember?
They can take really good care of her there
Where’s mama?
She’s sleeping
Where’s mama?
She needs to sleep a lot
But she visits you in her dreams
Where’s mama?
She’s –

Where’s mama?
Where’s mama?
Where’s mama?

Where’s mama?
She’s in the fields and flowers
With all the other mamas
Who came before her
Look –
I think I see her
In the curve
Of that daffodil
I want to be a flower, too
Someday, sweetheart. Someday.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Note: Medium is fantastic at knowing exactly what stories will make you click to read, and today my digest included a story by Heather Macleod about trying to help her four-year-old prepare to lose his daddy. This hit me so hard that I had to stop reading a few times and take a little break. I feel every day how very lucky I am – and a deep awareness that my story could have gone very differently (and still could).

The feelings from this article felt like they collided together with my own experience at the moment, where Rosie’s days begin with ‘Mama, mama, mama, mama’ and end with ‘Mamaaaa! Maaaaamaaaaa!’ (Definitely lots of ‘Daddy’ too, but I think the Ms are more satisfying.) Even in a two-bed flat where no one can leave during a pandemic, it’s amazing how often you hear the words ‘where’s mama?’ or ‘where’s daddy?’ Which has now progressed to ‘Whatchyoo doooooing mama!?’

In the article, the author Heather Macleod writes about how hard it is to juggle her son’s ongoing questions about his father:

“These spontaneous questions are like little paper cuts. But it’s our job to answer him truthfully and patiently. I’ve read that children who lose a parent have to re-deal with their grief from different angles over and over again as they grow up. The questions and challenges Isaac has around his dad’s death as a four-year-old will be different from those he has as an eight-year-old, or a 14-year-old, or a young adult. I’ve dreaded this ever since I read it.”

We always tried to be honest and open with Rosie, honestly I’m not sure we could have done anything different given the enormous impact it had on our lives. But I really admire the way Heather Macleod is managing to do the same with much harder questions – and that the answers she gives her little boy about where his father is now are exactly what I want to say to Rosie.

As I wrote this, I kept thinking of my husband, and the way he took on the role of primary parent during these challenging experiences. He did so much, without every making me feel left out. You become so reliant on the other people around your child to reinforce your love for them when you aren’t able to give it in the same way. In this piece, the constant questions might be about Mama, but it’s the answering voice that gives the child their anchor of safety. Zach was the main person in this role – but we were lucky to have the support of friends and family also giving that love and security.

This poem came because I just started hearing these questions and this dialogue. I think ultimately this poem might need to be shorter, but I just went with what came spilling out today.