There are many of us who wake up with anxiety. It can hold the insides of your chest with a single tight fist so everything clenches and shrinks the way your body does before a hiccup. Except the hiccup never comes. You hope and you wait but the longer you wait the more the fist clenches. From where does the clenched hand spring? How to pry open those curled, closed fingers?
A while ago, how many months or years I don’t know, my sister bought me two small pocketbooks with blank pages and beautiful covers. They were perfect except for the awkwardness of them being too arty to waste on shopping lists or calendars and not big enough to hold my ramblings. One morning this week, faced with this long-running dilemma, I started to copy poems into it. I was listening to an interview with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye and as she read her poem out loud I was moved. That first poem she read, Kindness then became the first poem I copied into my notebook in my scrawled cursive. This morning I read it out loud (you should too):
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
I read that poem and exhaled all that it made me feel into the room around me. I sat in momentary silence – the construction workers outside my building had stopped breaking concrete. I read another poem and another in a voice that faltered but kept on going. I was moved from my anxiety, absorbed in words that flew through me.
A poem, like so much art, has many functions. It cannot feed you or clothe you but it does the invisible work of all essential things – it speaks to your insides and shifts the way you are held by the world. It has the magic of disappearing knots in your chest so you can start the day softly. It takes you outside of the loop of Self. Your Self. It invites you to consider another’s experience, a stranger’s experience, a stranger’s thoughts and ideas and feelings and connect them to your own. A poem is an invitation to empathy.
I have filled the notebook my sister gave me with more poems since that first one only yesterday. With Wild Geese and Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver. And others. The poems are short and uncluttered, perfect for being read aloud in their entirety after breakfast and before work. It is akin to prayer.
Prayer was the earliest tool I was given to verbalise my thoughts, my anxieties, my everything. I was used to going into quiet spaces and thinking out loud to a kind of All Seeing Therapist who nodded frequently and did not give a lot away. Since then I have learned other ways to give voice to my insides, to soothe the clamouring questions.
‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth’ – Rumi
Running slows my thoughts to the pace of my breath and the slow movement of my legs treading road. Running makes me inhabit my body in a way I do not otherwise. Running forbids me to take for granted the miracle my body is. It connects me to each one of my senses that burn and tingle as I run through the world.
Writing pulls at loose threads I never would have noticed otherwise. How long is a piece of string? The thoughts go on, they write themselves when I have no audience for them. I write pages and pages I cannot remember writing, but I did. What other threads are waiting to be unraveled?
Reading: in which I evaporate into a cloud that travels the earth turning into rain and rivers, freezing and melting and coming into contact with every kind of creature and feeling there is. Reading – an exercise in transformation.
And I give thanks, of course.
These are the ways I kneel and kiss the earth.
What are yours?