I hadn't slept well, had to get my three kids to three different schools in three different cities, had deadlines piled on deadlines. I leaned my head against my bookcases and there, at eye-level, was a book of poetry by Mary Oliver.
I randomly opened to the poem "Egrets." Like magic, I was pushing through catbrier to the edge of a pond, where I watched "a spindle of bleached reeds" become egrets and "unruffled, sure, by the laws of their faith not logic, they opened their wings softly and stepped over every dark thing."
I closed the book, transformed, bolstered from the inside out.
From that day forward, each morning I read a poem. Even with a crazed daily docket, I can manage a minute or two for the words, reading while waiting for the bread to toast, sitting in a school parking lot. I've read poems at jury duty. At Jiffy Lube. Once, at a football tailgate, I read a poem in a Portajohn.
Alan Heathcock teaches fiction writing at Boise State University, and is a literature fellow for the state of Idaho.
That's the practical greatness of a poem. They don't take much time, travel well, don't require any plug-ins or accessories. It's the ancient and perfect technology of words on a page that make you imagine beyond your means, make you feel the truths of lives that are not yours, and contemplate the life you have.
One morning James Dickey urged, "Lord, let me shake with purpose. Wild hope can always spring from tended strength." Another morning, Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort told me her little grandmother knows no pain, and "...believes that hunger — is food, nakedness — is a wealth, thirst — is water."
There were sweet and playful mornings, like when Matthew Dickman proposed, "I loved you the way my mouth loves teeth," and all day I smiled, imagining my lips and teeth embracing. There were reflective mornings, like when Reginald Dwayne Betts confessed, "I was never enough saint to leave sin with the devil, leave my lies unsaid."
The older I get, the more life passes in a harried traffic of cars and people and events. This world of shallow speed often sends me to sleep feeling I've been to battle. Battle at dance practice and the soccer game and the drive-thru window, battle to pick up the dry cleaning and get the kids new shoes before I have to attend parent-teachers conferences. Battles at work, battles in my relationships, battles with myself. If you're like me, you long for a bit of quiet, a morning in the chapel, a walk in the woods. If only I had the time to still my mind, take an accounting of myself, find my balance once again.
I'm not a poet. Not much of scholar. Just a guy looking for a little peace in the mad scramble that is life. For me, this peace is a poem. A poem each morning, to sustain me through my days with the faith of an egret stepping over every dark thing.