Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul.
My column is a bit late this month, which is ironic since April is National Poetry Month. In April there are lots of poems out in the world to enjoy. This column began one late winter/early spring day at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just north of Olympia, Washington. It’s a beautiful place with a long boardwalk over the tide flats. Eagles, herons, and egrets abound, as well as Canada Geese. On a clear day you see Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains, and great views of Puget Sound. President Obama added Billy Frank Jr.’s name to this refuge in 2015. Mr. Frank, a member of the Nisqually tribe, was an environmental activist who also fought for fishing rights for his people.
That day in early April I was walking with Glen, one of my closest and best friends. We have known each other since the days when we attended and were instructors at a liberal arts college. From the first day we met, politics, and the human future were one part of our wide-ranging conversations. In 1975, we both were very optimistic, and hope filled. We saw a more just, unified, and liberal world emerging in our lifetime as the preferred future. We recognized some challenges, but we had hope and we had optimism. Fifty years later, as we walked the boardwalk over the tides with sun in our face, that optimism was hard to find. We wondered, honestly, how our national polarization and division could ever end. The divisions we knew in our youth seemed insignificant compared to 2023. We felt bad about the world we were leaving to our children and grandchildren.
Walking away from the Puget sound toward the parking lot we looked up and saw that the sky was filled with at least five long “strings” or “wedges” of Canada Geese. They covered the sky flying in perfect V shapes. Their honking grew louder as these wedges began to descend onto the grassy field in front of us. Literally hundreds of geese found their way to the swampy field. It was amazing. We were silent and in awe. And I thought of this poem.
The geese that day and the Blackbirds in the poem don’t solve the challenges. The polarization is real, and I don’t know how, long term, we can move forward as a people with such radically different world views. The poem and that day at Nisqually helps me remember that sometimes I need to look beyond the harsh human realities and see something larger at work. A mystery beautifully present around us ready to nourish us to do the work we need to do as we love this world.
PS- I used this poem in 2020. It is the first time I repeated one. The Nisqually walk is why.
“Blackbirds” by Julie Cadwallader-Staub
I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
“Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing by Julie Cadwallader Staub, Copyright 2019 by Julie Cadwallader Staub. Used by permission of the poet and The Paraclete Press
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, poet and the creator/host of Blues Vespers. He is the former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma WA. He serves on the PCUSA Self Development of People Education national committee and the PCUSA Education Roundtable. ([email protected]).