Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Thief We Can't Prepare For

A friend and colleague died unexpectedly this week, a kind and funny woman who’d dedicated her life to helping animals (even those usually forgotten, like rats and possums and baby vultures).

It’s left a hole in our office that no one was prepared for. It’s also been a reminder of how such a thing brings out people’s kindness. I suspect many people are surrounded by more goodness than they realize, yet I do feel like my office is probably sweeter than most. Maybe it's due to the nature of the work.

I’ve been reading Jane Hirshfield’s latest book recently, Come, Thief, and it couldn’t have been more timely. Hirshfield’s one of my favorite living poets; her work has a calmness and a depth that leaves me feeling rejuvenated every time I read it. I am a person who has a very hard time slowing my mind down, something I notice daily but especially whenever I’ve tried to meditate; it just doesn’t happen. I try to make my mind a calm blank page, but a thousand little thoughts creep in at the edges. Reading Hirshfield—a practicing Zen Buddhist—is about as close as I can come to stilling the hamster wheel in my head. Even her voice is calm (to hear it, check out the lovely interview my friend Adam recently did with Hirshfield. It’s at the bottom of this page.)

The loss of our friend this week had me going back to Hirshfield’s The Lives of the Heart, which has so many beautiful small moments it’s difficult to tally them. They returned to me this week not only because the poems are full of mortality, but because they are also full of animals—horses, foxes, cats, birds. In thinking about my colleague—and her husband, a dear friend—many of them have risen in my head:

Walk slowly now, small soul, by the edge/ of the water. Choose carefully/ all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.
(“On the Beach”)

These lines acknowledge, simultaneously, the importance of choosing what will be central to your life, and the fact that all of it will be lost. A nihilist might look at the latter truth and say it makes the first meaningless, but not here: “choosing carefully” still matters, even though everything chosen will vanish.

In Hirshfield’s newer book, "Contentment," a poem about looking after a collection of satisfied hens—and one who’s not yet ready to return to the roost—struck me as an experience that Sue would have loved, tending as she often did to a menagerie of rescued creatures. But it’s this poem that really made me (to paraphrase William Stafford) think hard for us all.

Thank you for the comfort, Jane. And thank you, Sue, for all you did for people and other animals.

The Promise

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,