It's been one year and five months since Kathleen passed, and I want to share with you a poem about her that came to me while I was at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center near Philadelphia where we were going to celebrate our 20th anniversary.
At the beginning of this month I went to Pendle Hill to attend a meeting of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, and also to take part in a poetry workshop led by Paul Lacy, retired professor of English from Earlham College. Paul is lover of poetry and a friend of poets--and one of the wisest, funniest, most compassionate teachers I've ever known. His easygoing style makes sharing poetry a joy, and the class was full of delightful poetry lovers, mostly moms with college-age kids who had lots of interesting life experiences and poetry experiences to share.
We read William Stafford, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon--three poets who speak to my condition as a Friend.
Jane died of cancer at a relatively young age, 48, and left behind some very moving poetry, including "Let Evening Come," which was featured in the film In Her Shoes, in a scene where the character played by Cameron Diaz reads the poem to a blind nursing home resident. I am including it here for you to read and enjoy.
During one of the workshop sessions, Paul asked us to write a poem about joy and a place. This is the poem that came to me:
From your window in ICU
From your window in ICU
you could see only the dry river bed
but you joyfully imagined
where it led towards the blue mountains
and the rocky paths where you loved to walk
amidst the pale green chaparral
What a celebration it was
when those who were reborn
as stem cell survivors gathered
joyously at the City of Hope
Thousands of them, with their loved ones
caregivers, doctors, nurses--some of them dancing
some simply standing up or sitting down
miraculously, self-consciously alive
with buttons proclaiming their age:one year, five years, twenty years old.
My button said, “One day….”
On the day you had your transplant
I brought you a balloon
to celebrate our re-birthday
our new life about to begin
And now in my mind I release that balloon
once again and let it float away
dancing in the air with a kind of wild joy
towards those blue mountains
where you yearned to go
When I read this poem to the group, I couldn't hold back the tears, and neither could Paul. Paul's son, age 41, was killed last summer when a cement truck crashed into his car. Paul is still grieving. And how could a father not grieve at such a loss?
I was reminded of the story told about a grieving woman and the Buddha. A poor peasant woman married a prince, but was unable to bear children for many years. People mocked her for being a loser: poor and childless, what a disgraceful wife for a great prince! Finally, she became pregnant and was overjoyed. She would finally be able to prove to herself and the world that she was a worthy wife. She imagined with joy and pride what a fine son she would bear the prince--the finest son in the entire kingdom! Sadly, her son was still-born. When the woman learned this news, she became insane with grief. She carried her dead baby around with her and refused to admit it was dead. People were afraid she had completely lost her mind, so they advised her to see the Buddha. She went to the Buddha, hoping he could revive her baby by some sort of magic. The Buddha listened to her sad tale, and then gave her a mustard seed.
"Take this mustard seed and go to every house you can find," he said. "When you find a household where no one has lost a loved one, give them the mustard seed and come back to me. I will help you."
The woman went from house to house with her mustard seed, and after a year she returned to the Buddha. She still had the mustard seed.
"How can I help you?" asked the Buddha.
"I want to be your student," the woman replied, and Buddha smiled the sad, peaceful smile of one who is acquainted with grief. In the course of her journey, the woman had come to realize the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. Life is suffering. Realizing this truth is the first step towards Enlightenment.
As I discovered in this class of poetry lovers, we all have deep sorrows and we all need consolation. The word "consolation" means "being alone together"-- a beautiful way to describe how we can help each other to heal simply by sharing our pain and grief. Poetry can help us to get in touch with our deep feelings and to recognize we are not alone. It is by accepting our suffering and transforming it that we become fully human.
Jane Kenyon wrote this beautiful poem of consolation to remind us we are never alone:
Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn.
Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come. .
Yes, evening is coming and as Jesus said: "When night cometh, no one can work." Before evening comes, let's do what we can to spread Love in the world. This is the work that really matters....
I feel blessed to be able to carry on the work that Kathleen beautifully embodied in her life. And I'd love to hear what you are doing, so please stay in touch.