It was a dark and stormy afternoon and I was trapped in the Barnes and Noble by a thunderstorm. Ginger was on the other end of the Streets of Southpoint looking for shoes. Since I had the time, I migrated upstairs to the poetry section to see what I could see. There I found a teenage Latina girl who was planted in front of the poetry books and so deeply engrossed in what she was reading that she didn’t even see me when I took my place in front of the bookshelf next to her and opened a book of invitations of my own. Neither of us spoke or acknowledged one another; we simply shared the space the poems made for us there on the second floor.
We were both deep into our poems when three other girls descended on the young poet like pigeons on breadcrumbs, barraging her with Spanish I didn’t understand. I assumed they had come to tell her it was time to go, or that the rain had stopped. Then one of them asked, “What are you reading?”
“Poems,” she said. And for the first time she looked at me, perhaps to know someone understood.
More Spanish, and then the older of the three intruders grabbed the book out of her hand and said, “You don’t need to read poems,” finishing her thought in Spanish.
The girl grabbed the book back and answered, “Yes, I do. They talk about love and yearning.” The others shrugged her off and turned to walk away. She put the book back on the shelf and began to follow, but not without asking, rhetorically, “What do you want me to do – just get a job and make money everyday?”
My chance encounter fell in the middle of an eleven-day-thirteen-shift stretch for me at work in a frame of my mind that has me examining what meaning I am making of my life these days. Reading and writing far too easily gives way to prepping and cooking; I spend much more of my life with pots and pans rather than poetry. I love cooking, I like my job, and I would like to spend my time differently, proportionally, than life affords me the opportunity to do in these days.
The last paragraph has less to do with existential crisis than with the desire, to borrow words from a biblical poet, Paul, to “make the most of the time.” As long as I’m borrowing words, I’ll turn to a poet and recent acquaintance, Justin McRoberts and one of the songs he sang at the Writer’s Conference in Jackson a couple of weeks ago:
you see the question isn’t are you going to suffer any more
but what will it have meant when you are through
the question isn’t are you going to die, you’re going to die
but will you be done living when you do
What the poets know is life adds up to more than the sum of the parts. A poet who has befriended me with her words over the years is Naomi Shihab Nye who wrote a poem in response to a student coming up to her at a workshop, handing her a piece of paper with his address on it, and asking her to write a poem and send it to him.
Valentine for Ernest Mann
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter and say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like you spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Who knows what the days ahead hold for any of us. Here’s what I do know: I want my life to be about poetry more than paychecks. I want to live in the middle of the skunks and the storms and still have the wherewithal to notice who is standing beside me at the next bookshelf, who I come home to, and, whether I spend the rest of my days cooking or writing, do more than get a job and make money, even though I need both.