Poetry That Helps Shape Our Lives

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 5:50am
Photo by Dirk O'Neill

Poetry That Helps Shape Our Lives

"Why Should I Ever Be Sad" came to me a few months when I was hiking the Aspen Vista Trail not far from Santa Fe. I was feeling my age, as they say, feeling melancholy about the brevity of life, when I stopped to rest, sitting on a rock and silently taking in all that was above, below, and around me.

Suddenly I felt joy in being there, simply being there! As that feeling settled in, I wrote the first draft of this poem as a way of taking the feeling home. I can still feel it…

I often post great poets in this column — Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rilke — because they speak truth with grace and help keep my spirit alive. I am not a great poet, but I no longer feel awkward about sharing my poetry here. I believe that everyone has poetry in them. I also believe it's important to "speak" the poetry that's in us — not necessarily on the printed page but with the lives we lead at home, in the workplace, in the world.

When I find or write a poem that feels true, my aspiration is to let it shape my life. "Why Should I Ever Be Sad" is not in the same league as the greats, but it helps me remember the kind of life to which I aspire. Is there a poem you want to live, whether or not it's in print?

Why Should I Ever Be Sad?
by Parker Palmer

Why should I ever be sad,
knowing the aspens are
always here dancing along
this trail, slim as willowy
girls, swinging their arms,
tossing their hair, swaying
their hips in rhythm with
the mountain wind? Above
the aspens, intensified sky,
a dream of blue seen only as
cities fade from view. Below
them a rocky slope covered
with clotted clumps of leaves
and fallen, rotted branches,
laying down a love bed where
Indian Paintbrush and white
violets grow amid a flourish
of green. All of the tumbled
boulders and rocks have found
their angle of perfect repose,
so why should I ever be sad?
All of this waits for me when
at last I stumble and fall,
waits for me to join in this
dance with all that turns and
whirls—a dance done to the
silent music of our dappled,
singing, swaying world.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Why Should I Ever Be Sad

When this morning dawns
awakening with the birdsong
held silent through the night and
though the sun does not shine
and warm the earth at my feet
a different light beacons my way.
Why should I ever be sad
when I know others have better reasons
than I, and their weeping stronger?
It has been raining for hours
and that rain is enough
wetness in my path

One of my simple favorites for more than fifty years has been this one by e.e. cummings:

"seeker of truth

follow no path
all paths lead where

truth is here"

As I have my morning coffee, looking at the mountains in Park City, Utah, I see the Aspens. The bright green of new leaves shades the hills. What a way to begin a day. I felt your words.

Thank you, Parker, I have been feeling the same lately and your words inspire me more than you can imagine...

Along exactly these lines, I recommend Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet."

Very nice, indeed. Thank you for the reminder!

Thank you for sharing that, Parker. I've been having similar feelings lately & also take solace in the mountains, trees, rivers, & the cycle of life that's larger than myself.

Great approach to poetry. Here's one inspires me every time:
“When your eyes are tired the world is tired also. When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you. Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own. There you can be sure you are not beyond love. The dark will be your womb tonight. The night will give you a horizon further than you can see. You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in. Give up on all other worlds except the one to which you belong. Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you. ” David Whyte

...and yet, I am sad.

Merlin, to Arthur, in The Once and Future King - "When you're very sad the only thing you can do is go and learn something" Go - the world awaits your eager exploration

How many times will I have to say goodbye
and this question brings me to another:
where did you go?

I heard you in the tree
carcajeandose, cackling and chortling
cao, cao, cruc, cruc
declaring loudly
your presence.

the tree trunk
tall, narrow,
and majestic
like you.
Once you were alive in that spiky tree
I guess nothing’s completely smooth
but always a little bit inaccessible
covered with thorns.


what fills the space when we are alive
what makes life?
Life needs:
the chemists tell us it’s the carbon
the medics tell us it’s our brain directing
Our lungs breathe without us telling them to
our hearts pulse without us commanding
and still
life is something more
more than the parts
(segregate the parts and life is not)
Dear endangered pajaro bobo
a metaphor for all of us
for all of our individual lives are endangered
does being endangered equate being precious?
You were surely precious to me
to us
to many, many.

Alive, you flittered and fluttered
Leaving love everywhere you traveled
like feathers.
Your large dark eyes laughing, dancing
One with Life
Singing church songs with the girls in the gazebo
Opening your nest to a young woman
and folding your wings around her
and giving, giving without ever asking for anything in return
How did you maintain to be always so Filled with Joy? With Peace? Always singing no matter the storm raging outside you? And later, singing even as your body was turning traitor on itself?
But your hymn carrying your heart always

(November 30th, your birthday
and you died in September
not even completing that last month of life
to round out the cycle
why were you robbed so many, many days?
birth begins with a cry
a breath)
Breath is life
Prana, the yogis call it
I heard you living
You were breathing
I heard you!
grasping for
air through mucus thick

Why did you stop?

like losing a part of me
an essential part
not a toe
but a piece of my lung
like your voice.

Two days later
after losing one
we saw you in the road.
Beautiful and still
your golden orange breast shining
but for how long?
your elegant tail feathers black with white manchas on the tips
still, not fluttering in the wind’s playful tickle
your beautiful blue gray wings
softly down by your sides
(not lifted up in flight)
What remains when you go?
Where is your song?

(and I find myself, echoing its lyrics; that melody that had once serenaded the vast earth and sky, reverberates still, in me, like footprints fossilized.)

oh, Mr. Palmer, but you ARE a great poet. thank you for your beautiful words and also for your encouragement on a day when I feel sad...

Poetry for me is less about language on the page as it is about paying attention to our lives. It is a way of life. I too believe that there is poetry in everyone. It is this ennate poetic nature that calls us to live in three distinct movements as Mary Oliver suggests: "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." Thank you for sharing. I am feeling deeply understood by your reflection.

Why does it take us
a lifetime to know
that every day
is lifetime?

Parker, this is a lovely poem. Your 'visuals' are superb.

"Why should I ever be sad?"