For writers after the American election.

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We who choose to be owls watch all this, blink our yellow eyes slow… — Joseph Boyden, Wenjack


This morning I walked down to the lookout point near my house. The lookout is perched on a hill and points across Lake Ontario. On a clear day like today, I can see a thin stripe of New York State across the water. I could paddle there in a canoe; we’re that close.


Admire the world for never ending on you — as you would an opponent, without taking your eyes away from him, or walking away.
— Annie Dillard


We’ve had a supernaturally warm November, downright summery, possibly a sign of climate catastrophe. Yesterday, I closed my eyes and imagined it was spring. Honestly, the air smelled like spring. I pushed up the sleeves of my sweater and felt the breeze on my skin. When I opened my eyes, the orange leaves in front of me were a shock.

For a moment, just because I believed it was spring, it became spring. Then it wasn’t again. I felt shaken. What is real?

In light of recent events, how to think? How to be a thinker and writer, right now?


In this time of copious and sophisticated distraction, one of the most subversive things we can do is pay attention.
— Erin Robinsong


I’m still reeling from the US election results. This has made me slow way down. I can't just go about my daily activities as though nothing has changed.

What happened?

How do I write again? I don’t feel like my novel is important, anymore.

I find myself staring, noticing the way sunlight shines through running tap water. How lucky I am to live where I live, to be able to see the water sparkle at this angle. The sun is so bright, my water is clean. Oh, and it comes out of a tap. How?

I am thinking but not thinking. I am reading, but not the way I usually read. I am reading and re-reading a handful of poems and koans. I’m reading the way I run my fingers over a stone in my pocket — touching it, but not in the way I usually touch things.

I am teaching myself a poem by John O’Donahue. I’m memorizing it, so I will have it wherever I go from now on. I copy the words over and over in my notebook, so I can see them in my mind and know them in my body.

My favourite line of the poem is: “The quiver of the seed awakening in the earth, unfolding in a trust of roots.”

Memorizing, I feel calm.


I feel a bond with every word I pick up. I feel affection, along with a sense of responsibility. When I can’t remember words, I fear I’ve abandoned them.
— Jhumpa Lahiri


I want to pay more attention now than ever.


In my attention lives my capacity for love and awe. My attention enables my adoration for nature, animals, and people. Without attention, my heart can’t be open.

When I’m distracted, I know I’m trying to escape what’s real by consuming something: Netflix, worry, chocolate, being busy.


The first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets, and the artists, and the novelists, and the playwrights. They ban their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do. Poetry encourages you to think for yourself and to disregard church and state.
— Michael Longley


My attention strengthens me.


When I write, I give people access to their own emotions.
— Gord Downie


There is a koan that John Tarrant writes about in his book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros.

The koan goes like this:

One day, Yanguan called to his assistant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.” The assistant said, “It is broken.” Yanguan said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”


What is the rhinoceros?

As a woman, I feel compressed by today’s news. My spirit feels kicked until the wind was knocked out of it. All I can do is read poetry and cry and copy it down and try to memorize it.

But when I go slow like this, the world actually opens up with my attention.

A strip of white cloud turns hot pink as the sun sets in front of it. The United States elects a president who leads with cruelty, ignorance, and fear.

I have a pen that writes in erasable ink. I’m typing this on a computer that runs with no wires. I had a headache for a week, and then it was gone.


Remember that nothing is ever, ever as good as you hope or as bad as you fear.
— Susan Piver


I understand very little about most of what is happening.

What if I stopped trying to fix the broken fan? What would happen if I made space for the inconceivable?

After John O’Donahue, I want to memorize poems by Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, Basho, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Jack Gilbert, Ursula K. Le Guin.


For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.
— Mary Oliver


Tomorrow, I will wake up early, and I will write again. I will keep writing.


This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
— Toni Morrison


Writers, let’s speed our healing and begin our love in action by writing together. Please come to a free SOS call — a guided writing practice with me — on Wednesday November 16th, 2016.

Get details and sign up for the call here.

With love,

Sarah” width=

   

Resources and recommended reading for writers right now:

Don’t Bite the Hook: 5 things to remember post-election by Susan Piver

No Place for Self-Pity, No Place for Fear by Toni Morrison

On Being: The Vitality of Ordinary Things with Michael Longley

Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh

Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John Tarrant

In the comments section below, please offer any other poems, koans, stories or books that have given you a sense of meaning and hope right now.

Thank you.  


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.


Three things you can learn from a good writing workshop.
Introducing The Story Workshop's 2017 Teachers.

37 comments

Scott Fotheringham

Thanks Sarah. Helpful to be reminded of why I write. I, too, have felt stymied by the election and unable to believe my novel is necessary anymore. I found, the morning after that horrifying result, that it was the ordinary things - breakfast with my family, laughing together, walking the kids to school - that brought me some peace. Writing fits in with that; it is ordinary. It is the way we express ourselves and the way we can express the pain of watching a country you once admired descend into madness and self-injury.
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Nicole Baute

Sarah. Thank you.
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Ann Cavlovic

Thanks for this Sarah! I woke up a couple days after the election with these lines from "A Darkling Thrush" by Hardy, about a Thrush singing a "full-hearted" song despite the bleakness of the landscape and the times.... "Had chosen thus to fling his soul Upon the growing gloom."
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Michelle Bradley

As an American, I NEEDED your essay. Thank you!
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Rose Ketring

A poem I found before the election through the podcast, "On Being." LETTER BEGINNING, ‘IF MY BODY IS A TEXT’ by Kiki Petrosino then you must learn to read. My hands, double book of them the threat you think my hands become when they unfold, hello. You find me in the cool of my car. Slim universe of my colored self, slim chance of saying what I need to say to turn my hands into a book or turn me back into the child who memorized each rank of angels Thrones Dominions Virtues Thrones— You, too, must learn to read. There, in the lagoon of every book: a body I pulled up by the hand. Another body I lift beside mine, my thoughts becoming body of light body of light You, too, must learn to read. How it feels for a colored child to lean & loafe, to take her ease in a thought— Like skimming across some blue wideness the moon appearing in day-sky. You’ll say: I didn’t know that was possible, didn’t know before the possible— You, too, must learn to read. At Monticello, once: the 13th amendment hung for three days, brown & spotted as a lion’s muzzle, pale syllables of Lincoln’s signature slowly fraying under glass. I wanted that warm page of skin, its words slanted alternatingly, as if the pen had wished to loafe against another body endless field of work, America, endless animal face in the work— You, too, must learn to read. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. That ain’t no harm. I drove my car this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. That ain’t no harm. I held my hands at 10 & 2, my mind stayed on freedom. That ain’t no harm. I spun the warm wheel of my life so smooth this morning. No harm. I drove towards sunrise this morning, all morning my mind stayed on freedom. No harm, no harm. No harm— You, too, must learn to read.
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Rose Ketring

Correction, the poem was first heard "On Note to Self"
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Heather Jessup

I teach English Literature at a small college in Vancouver B.C. and the day after the election my colleagues and I began an email thread to our whole department titled "Because we need poetry now more than ever." All last week we sent poems to each other. Like your essay, dear Sarah, these poems bore us up and got us through. Poetry is, as Mary Oliver says, as vital as bread in the pockets of the hungry. These are the three poems that I shared with my colleagues. Sending love, fresh notebooks, and full hearts to all of you. xo Heather ____________________________________ WHAT THEY DID YESTERDAY AFTERNOON by Warsan Shire they set my aunts house on fire i cried the way women on tv do folding at the middle like a five pound note. i called the boy who used to love me tried to ‘okay’ my voice i said hello he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened? i’ve been praying, and these are what my prayers look like; dear god i come from two countries one is thirsty the other is on fire both need water. later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered everywhere everywhere everywhere. _______________________________ THE MOWER by Philip Larkin The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found A hedgehog jammed up against the blades, Killed. It had been in the long grass. I had seen it before, and even fed it, once. Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world Unmendably. Burial was no help: Next morning I got up and it did not. The first day after a death, the new absence Is always the same; we should be careful Of each other, we should be kind While there is still time. ___________________________________ THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS by Wendell Berry When despair grows in me and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting for their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
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I wrote this before the election. I thought it would be stale post-November 8th, but no, turns out it's more insightful than ever: The Wedding Party The cows lowed from behind the electric fence in a field adjacent to where the wedding party was taking place. Were they mooing because they wanted attention, were hungry or just smelled the flesh of fellow farm pals sizzling on the grill? The crowd was big, many chickens, pigs and cows had been sacrificed in celebration of a new marriage, or maybe it should be termed a retread. Fourth for her, second for him. The ying and yang of this crowd was evident. Her people decked out in J. Crew; his in Harley Davidson. People pooled in little clusters and like Venn diagrams, the overlaps revealed the most tolerant guests. In the car I knew we were entering enemy territory as we wound through country roads littered with Trump-Pence signs. Even seeing those blue and white pronouncements – “Let’s roll back time” – gives me indigestion, and it’s not just the hyperbole I can’t stomach. I’m a HERS people so was drawn like a magnet to the preppy crowd. Getting my grilled piece of the sacrificial cow (and nodding in apology to Bessie who was now silently staring at me) I asked the pony tailed chef – maybe not quite the right title – how things were going. My burger was cold by the time I finally made it back to my people. I’d been last in line, and the cook truly believed I wanted to know everything about how he felt. The apron became insignificant, the soap box came out. That damned Hillary. At this point his allies started gathering around like feral cats waiting for food. The economy is a wreck. Surrounded, I wisely listened and acted interested. I actually was interested but not in the way they thought – it was more like being fascinated by a train wreck. The cars piled up, smoke billowing with bluster and the griping of passengers. Benghazi, emails, Obamacare. Whine, whine, whine. Obviously fed a diet of pure Fox and Rush, minds were set in stone. A flawed candidate? Maybe, but not as bad as her or that Black president. Be careful what you wish for I thought – very careful. In the course of conversation, I learned that Mr. Ponytail grill chef and his followers were divorced, some more than once. I remember a real estate agent tell me that divorce is a financial nightmare – so, in reality, much of this evil world they had brought on themselves. I worry about my newly betrothed beautiful friend who canvassed for Obama both times he ran and this marriage to her political opposite. Some things are so fundamental. I mean, Trump? Really? He’s more like the Hindenberg in the movie Groundhog Day – pompously self-destructing time and time again . The setting is beautiful – bucolic farmland, cows lowing for whatever reason, starlings soaring in amorphous clouds – but once she realizes that her life is in Jonah’s belly and there’s no escape from fear mongering in Trumpland, she’ll be aiming for marriage number five. This time, not to a wife beater (husband #1), not to a bankruptcy declarer (#2), not to a sociopath (#3), and not to a man who idolizes our global embarrassment of a presidential candidate. There is someone for everyone. Wonder how long it will take her to start looking for someone new?
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Thank you so much for this post, Sarah. The last week has been rough here in the US. There are millions who are thrilled with the election outcome, but even more who are horrified and heartbroken by it. The grief has been palpable. I questioned the purpose of my novel, too, last week because it's not something that will fix any of the important issues and problems that need fixing right now. Writing a novel feels futile. It feels like a distraction more than a solution. But I do sincerely believe that art will get us through, that art will respond appropriately to this period of time in history like it has countless times before, and that the deep noticing we must do as artists is, in part, what will help us change and be better human beings. So thank you for this reminder, and also for this post which was so meditative and soothing to read. xoxo
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Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - Martin Luther King. Writing is love.
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FrancesBoyle

A week of feeling stunned, sharing hurt and head-shaking with friends. A week of reading, reading, reading – links to articles that explained why Trump won (people feeling permission to reveal the racism that’s been unacceptable in recent times; the establishment being out of touch with middle-American frustration & despair; trade; the wrong Democratic candidate, etc. etc.), why wearing a safety pin is a good idea OR just plain stupid and insulting; why now is a time for conciliation, why it’s a time for anything BUT conciliation. A week of sinking gratefully into reading for Story Intensive – my classmates’ great work, stories that have been recommended by them and by our teacher – and reading poetry, ever and of course. A week of feeling for American friends who sense a real and present danger to the lives and well-being of themselves, their children, their communities, their country. Feeling all of this from my position of privilege on the (for now) safer side of the longest undefended (for now) border, knowing that, as immediate as it seems for me, it is even more real for them. After what felt like weeks of election hangover, the news that Leonard Cohen had died. As a friend said, even though it was sad, mourning his death brought a way to honour a different kind of emotion, to listen to his songs and read his words that are even more relevant now. (“there’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in). Is it too soon for a little levity? Hopefully not, because I laughed aloud for the first time in days when I read the following, from Roddy Doyle’s Facebook page: -See Trump killed Leonard Cohen. -Saw that. -He doesn’t only hate women. He hates the men tha’ women love. ’Specially older women. -Fuckin’ Clooney’s gone into hidin’. -Fuck him an’ his nespresso. -And the Pope. -Fuck the Pope? -No. Women – they love him. Mine does, an’ anyway. -Poor oul’ Leonard. He was good, but. Wasn’t he? -Ah, he was. You should hear me grandkids singin’ Hallelujah. -Good, yeah? -Fuckin’ hilarious. -The wife loved him. -Leonard? -She even became a Buddhist cos o’ Leonard. -Is tha’ righ’? -For a few weeks, just. Then she saw me eatin’ a quarter pounder an’ she said, ‘Fuck the Eightfold Path.’ But she’s always on at me to wear a hat like Leonard Cohen’s. -Well, he won’t be needin’ it any more – in fairness. -The thing is, but. If Leonard walked in here – if he wasn’t dead, like – they’d all go, ‘There’s an interestin’ man with a hat on him.’ If I walked in, it’d be, ‘Will yeh look at tha’ fuckin’ eejit with the hat.’ An’ that’s the big difference between us an’ Leonard Cohen. We couldn’t even start bein’ cool an’ Leonard never even had to try. Sarah, thanks for the posts and for opening the discussion. Be well, everyone.
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Oh Sarah - thank you so much for this. For your words and the words of others you offer up. For this space in which to gather. I wish I had an offering to leave.... in my own words. But I can't seem to find my way to them right now in any coherent way so... Here is a blessing from John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (I am working on memorizing this one) May the light of your soul guide you. May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul. May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work. 
May your work never weary you.
 May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. 
May you be present in what you do. 
May you never become lost in the bland absences. May the day never burden you. 
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises. 
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected. 
 May your soul calm, console and renew you.
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Thank you, Rose.
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Oh Frances - this made me smile. Thank you
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Thanks for writing this. Even though I haven't felt like writing, I've been writing every day. Little by little, it gets easier. I'm not going to let anything stop me.
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Elle Flythe

Thank you, Sarah. For people looking for a longer commitment 'My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remebered' by Howell Raines is a powerful collection of personal remembrances from participants in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s. I find reading a story or two very encouraging when there are long days and years ahead.
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Naomi powell

Thanks Sarah. Here's a recording of Leonard Cohen's last interview with The New Yorker's David Remnick. It was such a great comfort to me after last week. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H4PqY-VgSsI
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Scott. Your words are beautiful. Writing can bring peace, precisely because it is one of the ordinary things.
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Sarah Selecky

<3
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Sarah Selecky

Ann! Yes, this. It's beautiful, and perfect. Thank you.
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Sarah Selecky

Michelle, we are all feeling this with you. <3
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Sarah Selecky

This is beautiful. Rose, thank you for sharing it here. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Heather. Thank you, thank you. These three poems brought me to tears, of course, which is part of what's necessary I think. Poetry is my medicine.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you for sharing, Mary.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, dear Kristin. I believe art will get us through, too. I do. Let us take good care of these books we're writing -- and put ourselves into them. Fully.
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Sarah Selecky

Dear Laurie -- yes. Thank you.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh Frances, this was just right. I loved to hear the relief you felt, reading good stories and poems. The right kind of reading can be a balm for your nervous system and soul. The Doyle piece is amazing. Made me laugh/cry. I am so sad that Leonard left us now... and feel awed by his death, too, the timing of it a poem in itself. He showed us that his words are here for us. He's been writing for us, all this time.
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Sarah Selecky

Pam -- oh, thank you. I am so grateful to have read this tonight. xoxo, Sarah
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Jodie. <3
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Sarah Selecky

Wonderful, Elle. Thank you. xo S
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Naomi! Listening. I didn't know about this last interview - what a treasure. xo S
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The other evening I was crossing at an intersection outside a theatre I used to spend a lot of time in- singing, acting, dancing. By chance I caught the eye of the choir director as he was ushering the children back in for evening rehearsal, just like he had done with me, well over twenty years ago, closer to 25 years ago. He opened the door wide to greet me, and invited me to join the adult chorus on Monday night- they were getting ready to perform The Messiah in the holiday season. The Hallelujah Chorus! I readily agreed. I continued on my way and within the hour I was home and learned that Leonard Cohen had died. And between the choral invitation and the news, a simple Cohen call and response has been playing in my head all week, because I keep thinking the two incidents are connected - "Hallelujah, Hallelujah"
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Thank you so much for this essay, Sarah! My writing practice has been feeling hollow and purposeless since last Wednesday (all I can manage to do is to journal out my despair and anger), so this is exactly what I needed to read yesterday. I've also been listening to this lecture by Pema Chodron on "uncovering warmth in our minds" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwTSWG64rZE&app=desktop), which has a section toward the beginning about "practicing in the gaps" that sounds a lot like the practice deep noticing that you've written about in previous letters. I also loved the details that came from your practice of deep noticing in your essay above. I want to shift to writing more like this in my journal instead of just spewing out sentences that are a tangle of emotions. This morning I turned to the poetry of Natasha Trethewey, one of my favorite poets who has put into words what it feels like to be a person of color in the South. I really love this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55931 South BY NATASHA TRETHEWEY Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile. —E. O. Wilson I returned to a stand of pines, bone-thin phalanx flanking the roadside, tangle of understory—a dialectic of dark and light—and magnolias blossoming like afterthought: each flower a surrender, white flags draped among the branches. I returned to land’s end, the swath of coast clear cut and buried in sand: mangrove, live oak, gulfweed razed and replaced by thin palms— palmettos—symbols of victory or defiance, over and over marking this vanquished land. I returned to a field of cotton, hallowed ground— as slave legend goes—each boll holding the ghosts of generations: those who measured their days by the heft of sacks and lengths of rows, whose sweat flecked the cotton plants still sewn into our clothes. I returned to a country battlefield where colored troops fought and died— Port Hudson where their bodies swelled and blackened beneath the sun—unburied until earth’s green sheet pulled over them, unmarked by any headstones. Where the roads, buildings, and monuments are named to honor the Confederacy, where that old flag still hangs, I return to Mississippi, state that made a crime of me—mulatto, half-breed—native in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.
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Stephen Jones

Trump is like a book unwritten. Pages bloated with postulates erased. Propositions contradicting propositions. Understood and voted for, a version of a Trump that never wrote himself. For how can one read the erased except by writing it? As a New Zealander I feel for all Americans. For those who see him bleakly I hope your democracy is robust enough that America never rewrites Anne Frank. For those who write him in robes I hope you are right and that he manages to give you nothing that you want in a way that excels even your own expectations.
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Thank you for the invitation, Sarah, to acknowledge that as Canadians we are devastated, too. And Trump definitely has his Canadian supporters. And thank you for making a space for us to come together on Wednesday. There are such lovely people in this world. This poem is the one I reached for when I heard the election news. Love to All. The Peace of Wild Things When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. — Wendell Berry
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Thank you so much for this. xxo A balm for the soul.
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I see I sent a duplicate poem. Funny how I didn't see that yesterday. :) So I send a poem that was sent to me today. <3 The Inside Chance by Marge Piercy Dance like a jackrabbit in the dunegrass, dance not for release, no the ice holds hard but for the promise. Yesterday the chickadees sang fever, fever, the mating song. You can still cross ponds leaving tracks in the snow over the sleeping fish but in the marsh the red maples look red again, their buds swelling. Just one week ago a blizzard roared for two days. Ice weeps in the road. Yet spring hides in the snow. On the south wall of the house the first sharp crown of crocus sticks out. Spring lurks inside the hard casing, and the bud begins to crack. What seems dead pares its hunger sharp and stirs groaning. If we have not stopped wanting in the long dark, we will grasp our desires soon by the nape. Inside the fallen brown apple the seed is alive. Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, the sap leaps in the maple under the bark and although they have pronounced us dead, we rise again invisibly, we rise and the sun sings in us sweet and smoky as the blood of the maple that will open its leaves like thousands of waving hands.
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