May this be a safe place
Full of understanding and acceptance,
Where you can be as you are,
Without the need of any mask
Of pretense or image.
I read the little excerpt above, from Mary Oliver’s poem “Good Morning” (Blue Horses, 2014).
From experience, I know I can trust the safety of this circle, and the power of the poem. Any poem. Sometimes, as Oliver says, the words sting. Sometimes they give rise to hope. Always, for me, the poem opens a doorway to community, however temporary.
This morning, I’m intrigued by this idea of community. I tell a little story.
Several years ago, my son and I went for a hike on Rabbit Mountain, a few miles west of our home in Longmont. He was going through a bad patch, feeling lost and isolated. Tramping along the trail, touching the leaves of bushes as I pass, I admit that I, too, feel quite lonely at times. Especially among people. Often in a crowd. I sense (perhaps I merely imagine) how different I am. How separate.
And so, I go outdoors. “I never feel lonely in nature,” I tell him. “It’s odd, because we’re such social beings, you would think we would require other humans to feel a sense of belonging. But we are so rarely authentic around one another, we become alienated from ourselves.
“In one of his poems, David Whyte says, ‘All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves.’ Out here,” I explain, “where every living thing is just what it is, I can be myself.
“What’s more, I know from my study of evolution that all these animals and birds, even these plants and trees, are brothers and sisters or long-distant cousins. If I trace my genealogy far enough down the branches of the tree of life, I realize we all spring from one trunk, its roots planted firmly in the earth. Genetically, this bird, which evolved from a dinosaur, and I both share a single common ancestor. We’re related. In nature, I find my place again in what Mary Oliver calls ‘the family of things.’
“This,” I add emphatically, “is the community I search for, yet rarely find, among humans.”
My son gazes around at the wildflowers and pine trees, a pensive expression on his face. I’m not sure he gets it. But that’s okay. I have spoken the truth aloud. I hear myself.
“Poetry—especially the poetry of nature—represents, another ‘entrance to community’,” I tell our little group gathered this morning. This circle, I realize, is the other place where I never feel lonely. Here, too, I can be myself. Even when I feel bad.
So we begin. We read the poem we have selected for the day. The seven of us reflect alone, and together.
Someone admits she has been depressed. Something we have done has made her feel safe enough to embrace it, and to share it. We listen, all ears—all heart. She reads a poem that emerged for her from the silence. I am stunned to hear some of my own words echoed in her poem. I feel honored . . . and humbled.
I experience the hope, and the community created by poetry. I feel its hand—and the reader’s hand—in mine. For a few moments, I belong again to the family of humanity.
Several others express their gratitude for the space that we create, for what happens so mysteriously when we’re willing to be vulnerable.
A day or two later, someone sends me an email. Subject line: Vulnerability.
“Our monthly Lectio Poetica is such a satisfying place of reflection, course correction, and community sharing for me,” she writes, among other things. “Although you call us together and you hold the energy field of the group, I am grateful that you also let yourself be a member. It makes it all the more safe because there is no hierarchy, no one who has the answer.”
Again, I’m stunned. I’m speechless. I take an entire day to formulate an appropriate response.
“Thank you for telling me how you feel about who I am, and what I’m doing,” I say. “Sometimes I just need to know I’m making some small difference in the world.” I thank her, too, for her presence and her contribution to our little circle. Again, I don’t feel quite so lonely.
A week later, another poem arrives in my email box.
At the end of our July meeting, feeling the intimacy that we had experienced, I had asked if anyone would be willing to share their reflections with the larger Lectio Poetica community. I have been suffering from a serious case of writer’s block for several months, so I have published few of my own reflections.
Margaret Porter, a long-time participant, another one of the people I consider a core member of this community, wrote this lovely little poem that morning. She offers it freely, now, for your contemplation:
Never lonelier than in a crowd,
Surrounded by people I do not see,
People who do not see me.
How can it be
I do not feel at home
With my own kind,
While held by earth and rock and sky?
How bridge this gap?
Through poetry we dare to voice
What is not safe to speak directly.
Intimacy coaxed forth by metaphor
Drawn from the natural world we share.
And in connection find
What we lost from humankind.
As for the poem, this poem, do you feel its sting? Do you feel its hand in your hand?
—Jay E. Valusek