I wrote this column the morning of May 24th. Later that day, 19 children and 2 adults were killed by an 18-year-old gunman at a Texas elementary school in yet another in a series of deadly acts of gun violence in this country. My heart aches for those who were killed and their families. Heartache is not enough. Individually and communally, we need to find concrete ways to change our gun laws and in President Biden’s words, “Stand up to the gun lobby”. We also need to address and change the toxic climate of tension, hate and division in this country that creates an all too fertile environment for acts of violence. I write about poetry and spirituality not as an escape from the tragic realities in our nation and world. Rather, it is an effort to feed the spirit and soul to strengthen and empower us to act and make a difference.
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. ‘Setting the Inner Compass’, is a column where I share poems that I find meaningful and hope others do as well.
I just returned from a time away on the Isle of Iona, Scotland. It was wonderful, I was reminded how some places and landscapes nourish the soul. Iona is one such place. It isn’t magic. I think it is the combination of the intention/expectations that we bring on a pilgrimage and the place, the “thin place” itself that makes such a journey rich and fulfilling. I am grateful for the time. I hope all who read this find time to be in a place that nourishes and renews the spirit as we engage our world.
The two poems in this late May column are about simple things: a cup of coffee with one’s partner on a day in early May and the yellow flowers blooming on a pussy willow plant. In Linda Pasten’s poem, “The Happiest Day”, the poet experiences the happiness of being with someone she loves on a beautiful day. The harsh realities of life are present (strikes, wars, irritations), this is not a poem of denial but, how in one particular moment, on a beautiful day unexpectedly one can experience love, blessing, and happiness. It is about a moment of grace.
The second poem is one I wrote this past April, “Catkins”. Brittany Deininger, a Seattle based poet and theologian observed that in the poem I found a “portal,” a door that connected “Ukraine to New Jersey, the immediacy of the spring garden of now with memory’s garden of then, and the gesture of ushering in peace entangled in war. The image of Ukrainian peoples waving the yellow blooms at Easter holds such evocative hope…” I am reminded that some poems help us see “the thing in itself” and some poems are doorways that take you somewhere else, sometimes to surprising places. My “Catkins” poem is the later.
As we move from spring to summer my prayer is that we all find time to feed our spirt and soul as we continue to engage the world trusting Jesus’ radical path of love.
“The Happiest Day” by Linda Pastan
It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.
“CATKINS” by Dave Brown
I saw them standing in the pot
on a late winter’s day,
the pussy willow branches
I rooted the spring before.
The gray fur like nubs grew
on the three branches.
They were soft and tightly
bound against the cold.
I remembered that my mother
liked the pussy willow plants
that grew in the corner of the yard
in our New Jersey suburb.
Weeks later, on Easter
the pussy willows in a pot
caught my eye again. The gray
soft nubs had blossomed,
into brilliant delicate
pollen coated yellow flowers.
I was awestruck,
surprised at the beauty.
The gray pods that transform
to intense yellow flowers are
called catkins from katteken, the
old Dutch word for kitten.
Such a transformation!
Changing from gray pod
to brilliant yellow. A gift of spring
I had never seen before.
As the Catkins on my pussy willow plant
bloomed on Easter Day,
across the globe, in Ukraine
people gathered to celebrate Palm Sunday.
They celebrated with pussy willow branches.
Like the ones growing in a pot in my yard.
Like the ones growing in the corner
of the yard of my New Jersey childhood home.
In Ukraine, palms are scarce.
Some call the Sunday
This year, in a time of war
they celebrate with pussy willows
the entrance of
the Prince of Peace.
In Kyiv, Odessa and Mariupol surrounded
by the rubble, scars, and stench of war,
they gather in old churches and wave
pussy willow branches with gray catkins.
They sing, praise, hope and pray
that just like the gray catkin will be
transformed to brilliant yellow flowers
that soon, somehow, darkness
will become light again.
The noise of war will stop.
The stillness of peace will come.
Life will blossom in places destroyed by hate.
Until then, the people are faithful,
waving the willow branch
prince of peace,
praying for new life,
“The Happiest Day” by Linda Pastan is reprinted from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998. Copywrite © 1998 by Linda Pastan. Sed with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
“Catkins” © Dave Brown is used by permission of the poet and will be in a forthcoming collection.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. ([email protected]). His most recent poetry collection is, I Don’t Usually but…