Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

If your name
suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment,
or to announce
the entrances and exits of the seasons
and the birthdays of gods and demons,
it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States.
And try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck,
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother
too harshly. Don’t ask her
what she thought she was doing,
turning a child’s eyes away
from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if, one day, you meet someone
in your adopted country and believe
you see in the other’s face an open sky,
some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means
you’re standing too far away.

Or if you think you read
in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace, a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you’re standing too close.

In any case, try
not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you’re one of those
whose left side of the face doesn’t match
the right, it might be a clue
looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
Don’t lament
not being beautiful.
Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering
while forgetting. Dying to live
while not wanting to go on.

Very likely, your ancestors decorated their bells
of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars and diagrams
of distant star systems,
but no maps
for scattered descendants.

And I bet you can’t say
what language your father spoke
when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”

Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping
and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn’t matter.
What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good.
But living is better.

Alone
in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.

~~ Li-Young Lee ~~

I walked, all one spring day, upstream…

“I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies. My parents were downstream, not far away, then farther away because I was walking the wrong way, upstream instead of downstream. Finally I was advertised on the hot-line of help, and yet there I was, slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source.

I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.”

~ from Upstream by Mary Oliver

It Happens To Those Who Live Alone

It happens to those
who live alone
that they feel sure
of visitors
when no one else
is there.

Until the one day
and the one particular
hour
working in the
quiet garden,

when they realize
at once
that all along
they have been
an invitation
to everything
and every kind of trouble

and that life
happens by
to those who
inhabit
silence

like the bees
visiting
the tall mallow
on their legs of gold,
or the wasps
going from door to door
in the tall forest
of the daisies.

I have my freedom
today
because nothing
really happened

and nobody came
to see me,
only the slow
growing of the garden
in the summer heat

and the silence of that
unborn life
making itself
known at my desk,

my hands
still
dark
with the crumbling
soil
as I write
and watch

the first lines
of a new poem
like flowers
of scarlet fire
coming to fullness
in a clear light.

~~ David Whyte ~~

Children Will Listen

How do you say to your child in the night
Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white?
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

How can you say to a child who’s in flight
“Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight”
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won’t be misunderstood?
What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in its head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too
Careful what you say
Children will listen
Careful you do it too
Children will see
And learn, oh guide them that step away
Children will glisten
Tample with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free
Careful before you say
“Listen to me”

 

~~ Stephen Sondheim ~~