when i meet my ghosts

The ghosts cling to me, thin and cobwebbed. They trail behind me. I don’t notice them for 1,000 days and then I play a song, five minutes of praise and the ghosts crowd the car, clamoring for my attention. They all want to hold my hand. They all want to remind me, to whisper their moment back into life.

There are 43 days of ghosts and then there are 180 days of ghosts that surround them and there are moments that stretch too far forwards and backwards to count.

They are ghosts dressed in scrubs and halogen lights. They are ghosts that use hand sanitizer and take off all jewelry below the elbow. They are ghosts of footsteps and clipboards and bedsides.

I tell myself we have moved farther out on the water. I tell myself that me and God, we are so much farther out, we are finally okay together again, we can talk.

But when I sing that the grave cannot hold what your grace has justified, when I try to sing that this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it then I am a living ghost, driving the old roads by the Waco airport, praying, believing for a miracle that became 43 days and two surgeries and 7,000 cotton tipped applicators and 104 trach changes and two nights where only the ghost of my heart kept beating and only the ghost of my lungs kept breathing as we suctioned and prayed and ran out of oxygen and drove to the hospital.

What should I do with these ghosts? One moment I declare that they should be banished, for there is no use for them here where we are all living. And then I feel my daughter moving inside me and I see my son moving outside me and I realize that I do not want to give them up to the God whose name I sometimes cannot really speak. I do not want to know how frail my own arms are. I do not want to keep going in pursuit of him. I imagine that Peter’s sinking was not just because he doubted, no, it was also weariness, because the days are long and the nights can be longer, living with the mystery of the Son of God. I imagine that the work of faith to keep your feet afloat was too much for him – how often it is too much for me. How far away Jesus must have seemed on that dark water. How far away Jesus seems to me when the ghosts remember for me how very deep and dark is the sea.

This is not a story of banishing those ghosts, this is not a story of dismissing them with the fierce words of promise or the declarations of Zephaniah spread over me like a shield. This is not a story of taking respite from the storm in the Word because here the Word is in the storm, and the Word is troubled waters, in the very midst of them, not just a peaceful bridge over.

But the Word of God is not a ghost.

No, the Word of God is living and active, and sharper than a sword… and it pierces past my memories and the clouds of tears in the Target parking lot. There is no easy resolution. But there is encounter. Among the waves, in the water itself, there Jesus comes to meet me.

It’s been almost two years since I walked the hallways of the NICU. And there are songs that call up those footsteps and Subway still tastes like waiting for a surgeon’s call – but now I see Jesus walking next to me. We haven’t talked much about those days.

But we somehow have been in them together.

Love,
hilary

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on a lemon tree

I read Rainer Maria Rilke to my plants. They’re two small bushes, lime and Meyer lemon. This year is the first I ever thought seriously about growing something, tending to it, watching over it. I have been too good for too long at letting plants die in their original pots. We bought rose bushes last summer I never planted. They scorched in the July Texas sun, and every so often I would feel a sadness come over me when I looked at them. That’s how it feels, I would almost say out loud. Overwhelmed, and scorched by the sun, by the heat of the rush and bustle. 

I learned later that it was also the slow creep of depression, settling in along my veins, my brain quietly putting its seratonin production on bedrest. Without knowing it, my body rearranged itself to survive. It is a miracle that they do this; it is a miracle that so often we do not notice until much later.

So this winter, so new to the feel of a daily pill and a gulp of water, so unsure of how to permit myself to walk slower through a quick world, I bought these plants. I positioned them near a south window. I let them drink in the winter sunlight and overheated our living room by pulling up the blinds for hours at a time. The lemon tree flowered quickly, filling me with a strange sense of achievement. Of course, when I stopped to think about it, what had I done? But I didn’t worry myself with it too much. I watered and I lifted the blinds and I took credit for the first tiny lemon that sprouted. I felt a sense that the season would turn around for me. I would get better, heal quicker, return to my usual pace.

And then I forgot to water the lemon tree. The lime tree is vigorous, pushing upwards with new leaves almost daily, though it is stingy with blooms so far. But the lemon, in all its exuberant growing, had five or six tiny lemons on it immediately, small and green and perfectly shaped.

And I forgot to water it, and those beautiful tiny lemons, signs of my imminent return to some mythic normal, fell off. A branch or two turned brown, the green shrinking back further and further into the main stem.

I wept and fretted. I brought the trees outside. I repotted the lemon tree. I watched in apprehension to see what would happen.

The tree is still alive, and it’s still flowering. I can’t get those first lemons back. I can’t take credit for its living; though I’m some part of the story of its first losses.

What is this all about?

When the first lemons fell, and I felt the salty taste of despair in the back of my throat, I remembered having read that reading to plants, or playing them nice music, can help them grow. I reached for the first book of poetry I could grasp – the collection of Rilke, a daily reading. I opened to that day. And it said:

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 4

It’s Rilke who said that so much of everything that is most true, most important, is unsayable. And poetry is the gesture, the promise, that though we cannot say the unsayable, we can glimpse it, we can approach it.

I feared the loss of the lemon tree. I feared the loss of a myth of returning to normal. I feared slowing down permanently in a world where the pace quickens, quickens, quickens.

I read to the trees still, read to myself while reading to the trees. I read it out loud to the backyard and the fading Texas sun. And now it’s been a few months of learning the companionship of depression and its unpredictable arrival. I do not know that I will come back to a place I’ve been before. I do not know that I wish to.

Love,
hilary

bring back everything

I wander in the thousand winds
that you are churning,
and bring back everything I find.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 55

God.

I pray in the cloisters of a thousand older prayers that I have to believe someone before me prayed, that I have to believe are already well worn, broken in shoe prayers.

I am wandering in the thousand winds.

You’ve brought me here to the beginnings of everything, and there are a thousand winds, each so full it seems it will take a lifetime for the words to catch it. How can I bring you back what I find?

I find my old shoes on new pavement, a Texas sun planting freckles on my shoulders, a bridge over an unhurried river, the smallest breeze lifting my hair off the back of my neck between red lights, almost as if you wanted the ordinary world to come a little closer to me. The air, the sweat of the morning, the silence.

How can I bring you what I find? Because he is next to me when I wake up in the morning and when I go to sleep, and there is suddenly, finally, and all at once, the ark of marriage, as much mystery as calling and covenant and courage. Oh, the courage it is to be married, to wake up next to each other with so much more than ever can be said between you, with so much fullness, and so much wonder? How, God? How can I bring you what I find?

You are churning these thousand winds, O Lord, and I am so small. How can I bring you what I find?

The question echoes along the corridors of my heart, walks with me into the grocery store, when we walk down the street to talk about our days, or what has surprised us, when it is morning and the words don’t seem to be there, for what it is that I want. But this is what I want: to bring back everything I find.

To be a gatherer of the scattered pieces of your goodness in the world, the smallest goodnesses of muscles that move me along that unhurried river and the goodness of the man who moves with such ease in the small kitchen, his smile betraying so much more joy, the goodness of the well-fought fight, of the bigness of Texas sky or the way a phone call will pour water on a thirsty heart, of Life of Pi read out loud one morning, of country music through speakers, of running out of words long enough to be asked to listen again.

This is what I want, God, to walk these cloistered prayers and to be in the churning winds and to bring you what I find.

I find your fullness in these thousand winds.

I want to bring back everything.

Amen.

Love,
hilary

for when the poem makes promises

I’m a haphazard writer, at best. These days I turn to the keyboard and I find that I have little to say, that everything coming to the surface is about the waiting, this endless waiting, or about the hurry-up-and-slow-down dance we’ve been doing. I keep thinking that I have nothing new, that there is nothing new under the sun, to gift or to give, and I want to sigh like Anne of Green Gables, exhale all the sorrows of the ages into the world, breathe in the goodness, breathe out the worry, begin again.

My wordpress dashboard tells me that this day two years ago we began here, a wild love for people and God and words and the way those things are in each other and through each other. Two years. The two years of agony and wonder that only a life lived full can bring at the same time.

And there, the silver thread running through, the minnow in the shining water, is poetry.

It is the beginning of every metaphor I have given in the past two years, the end of every sentence. It is the heart behind the heart I present, the asked unasked question that shivers in the dark. It is the stolen moments at work when I type to remember how to write at all, to stitch limbs with words like so much dissolvable surgical thread, hoping the body, the poetry, will heal itself. It is itself, too, spurning my company in an instant for the sticky sweetness of the afterword, the last punctuation, the ghost in the air.

I started this blog with the idea that love is wild, and maybe that is the prayer which is the poem which is not either thing, but I want it to be so I can be writing about poetry, so that I can be a poet, a prayer. Love is wild. Is it?

The poems command me to say yes, that it is an untamed thing, living like fire, the other breath in our lungs. Love is basic, built from what builds our bodies and yet, like our bodies, beyond its elements. Love is hormones firing in the brain and then pushing out into the kiss, the skin cells meeting, the silent late night sorting of the recycling. Love is basic, built up from the periodic tables we live in, then reaching so far away from us it takes a poem to pull it back in, takes words, takes the Spirit’s speaking. And a listening ear.

Poetry is that listening ear against the galaxy, against the spinning chaos, against the noise that becomes the music that still is chaos.

Poetry is my surgical thread, the minnow I imagine at the bottom of the pond that most days looks too ordinary to notice, poetry what turns my gaze back towards the world in horror and awe.

Poetry pulls the wild love out of me, of you, makes more of us wherever it is, sitting in dusty chapbooks abandoned by the world.

Day by day, stitching us whole.

Love,
hilary

for when the poem hurts your pride

This is for the poems that stand defiant on the other side of the fence from you, sure that they have evaded your grasp, and you are tired, limb-tired, arms hanging off your shoulders like skinny stockings, and you are too tired to understand them.

This is for the poems that read me better than I read them, aloud in my office in the eerie stillness of an evening working too late, my halfhearted defiance against the ordinary. The poems that sat contented to watch me struggle in pronunciation or in prayer, poems that I imagine laughed at my third or fourth reading where I adopted a British accent in the hope that would uncover the meaning in the page.

Poems are meant to hurt our pride.

They are bruising things to the tender fruit of our thinking ourselves wise or right or people with understanding. The poems tear down our defenses. The poems reveal and reveal past layers of skin and shards of interpretation to that quickening heart, the one that beats and beats and goes on beating even in the longest day.

When I wind my way home on an afternoon, when I am convinced that I will be weighted and measured by the accomplishments that gather dust in the old battered shoe boxes at the top of the creaking stairs in my house, there the poems arrive.

One after another they cling to me like stubborn water, in my hair, in the hollow spaces of my ears.

I can hear them even now, their echoes –

“so, through me, freedom and the sea” (here)

“He had cancer stenciled into his face” (here)

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall ” (here)

“Out on the flats, a heron still
as a hieroglyph carved
carved on the soft gray face of morning.”(here)

That’s Pablo Neruda meeting Edward Hirsch meeting Robert Frost meeting Leonard Nathan.

And still, they devastate me with the promise that I am not the accomplishments, I am nothing as neat as a checklist or a perfect score. I am nothing as simple as dotted i’s, for the space between a lowercase i, ee cummings, and the regal I of Margaret Atwood’s “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” – that is where  mystery begins.

If a poem was a graph, I think, I could map its meaning, plot it, make a line of best fit to zip the untidy grammar and preserve this idea that I can be known by what I do, and by that I mean you can know me by what I presume and present.

If a poem was a graph, but, then – a poem in the midst of the thought –

the small clustered army of empty boxes
marches across the white desert, line by starved blue line
awaiting the signal to scatter
plot, parabola, sharp V like the neat geese northbound
in June.

I can’t even write a post about poems without being taken up with the idea of one, the promise and peril of words on paper. These poems wound my pride until it sits meekly in the corner, finally, aware that there are a million acres of understanding between me and the poem, me and the poet, and those acres in an instant no distance at all.

This is for the poems that make me think I can never love poetry.

Those same poems preach in my worried heart that I wanted to be taught the wild love, and they are the unrepentant teachers.

These are the poems that will uncage us. These are the poems that call out our sweet, living flame.

Love,
hilary

on poetry (a guest post for Seth Haines)

Today I get to share over at the wonderful Seth Haines’s space about poetry. About why I love it, how I love it, why it makes me move and think and wonder. Join me over here?

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

Keep reading over at Seth’s place, and let’s celebrate poems and poets and the way that words make this world so beautiful.

Love,
hilary

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

– See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

– See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

– See more at: http://sethhaines.com/uncategorized/on-poetry-by-hilary-sherratt/#sthash.nHqJImSk.dpuf

all I know how to do is read

“To write good poetry,” he said, that cold afternoon, the kind where the fall burns to winter, our bodies huddled in bulky sweaters, feet crammed into rain boots a bit too small for us, pens and pencils out and at the ready over the white spaces, “you must read good poetry.”

This was not the first time he said these words, not even the first time he had reminded us that most of the work of poetry is reading it.

We were ready to slice sentences like bread into fragments tripping over the page, to pair words the rhymed with precise, clean movements. We wanted the ease of the clicking consonants and the sticky slow rhythm of iambic pentameter. We were ready to be poets – but perhaps most of us thought poetry was the easiest art, since it had the most silence?

He told us to read.

It was Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda and Ellen Bass. It was Katha Pollitt and Tom Hennen and Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur and Linda Pastan and a hundred others who write into the vast world without our knowing, most of the time. Every day, a poem. Every day, a person who saw the world and who spoke it back, its absence, its presence, its earthy goodness, its salt.

He told us to read, and for the first time I became hungry for words, for the way they each sound and how they flow into one sound which is many which is one meaning which is many, again. I wanted to read as I had never read before, savor the pages of the thinnest books, not the hefty pages of great American novels and trying physics textbooks. No, give me the lightest touch of pen to paper, the silence of Emily Dickinson’s dashes and the desperate yawning chasm of Edward Hirsch’s “Self-Portrait as Eurydice”. There is something deep in the words, something I would start to grasp just as I finally let the book slip from my fingers, and with it, the memorized neatness and the words and all that was left was the impression that I had met something, been asked a question, been gifted a bit of living fire.

He told us to read, and I have been reading.

And not just the books in the old poetry bookshop down the side street in the heat of summer when I am falling in love with Preston, not just the poetry I find and write and make, no, I have begun to read the world.

I have begun to see the way the sun rises slow in the April and too fast in fall, how there is a dance to rain against a windshield, a hypnotic, unending chaos that draws you in. I have begun to read the steps between home and the pond, the wind like Braille against my fingertips, hands moving like scissors as I run. I have begun to believe that to read the world like this is, indeed, to love the world, as it is, as it must be, as it yearns to be.

It is this way with the man who shovels snow too early in the morning to talk back to the silent trees. It is this way with the woman I see making her way nervously, heels-clicking, down the sidewalk towards the post office on Saturday, the way it is with the bird chatter or the dog and his patient tail thumping the song of our mornings.

All I know how to do is read, for poetry does not teach you to write, only to see everything new through the ache between your eyes and your pen, between the word you must delete despite your love of it, its syllables and sounds, because the poem itself does not need the word. I know how to read and, if I am patient even with myself, the world who is patient with me still will read me, open me up like the well-worn copy of Farmer Boy that I watched my father open, night after night, years ago.

This is the most brazen command of and to the poet – read. 

Love,
hilary