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QUINTESSENCE

Trying to Remember

Statue of The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When They Say Don't I Know You?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say Why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.


This poem came to me via the wonderful tiny chapbook by Roger Housden, "Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime." (I have spoken of this collection before.) Housden has this to say: "I find the strong and sober stand of this poem a welcome inspiration. Yet I know there are those who feel otherwise. People have told me they feel it to be ungenerous and curmudgeonly in its attitude to others. On the other hand, I remember seeing Bill Moyers on PBS one evening, and him saying that ever since being called into the hospital for heart trouble, he has kept a copy of this poem by Naoimi Shihab Nye in his top pocket. For me, it's that kind of poem. A reminder poem, a shake-your-tree poem, a wake-up-and-live-your-own-life-before-it's-all-too-late poem."

Makes you pause, doesn't it? Housden calls a poem that speaks deeply a "message from a trusted friend," that is, "the persistent murmur in our own chest." He adds this observation by Keats - which I find the single greatest secret to cultivating poetry (or any art, for that matter) - "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."

We plod through our promised-to's, the ought-to's, and endlessly defer personal must-do's. Last in priority are those experiences, projects, and commitments that call us to live deeply, exploring all the corners of our being. Pause for a moment and think about this: Do you remember the moment when you knew your life dream? When you crested from childhood into young adulthood and set your sights on the world's horizon? Do you recall the truth you felt in your bones that hot August afternoon, lying in the grass under the green willow branches, staring up and through an endless sky? Have you experienced a sudden shiver holding a newborn? Become aware of the life history in the still, veined hand of your grandmother as she held a tea cup and waited by the window?

Nye's poem is a call back home - live your life, know life, for life is finite.

I appreciate this poem's honest fierceness. Nye doesn't mince words. I need that. Her poem reminds me that a given day on earth is not about obligation. Being present for your own life is not the denial of relationship, responsibility or connection, but practicing purpose. Inhabiting the originality and truth that is yours alone. Answering the call. Whatever that "it" is that beats at the heart of every human spirit and reflected in these lines from THE ART OF DISAPPEARING I carry in my wallet.

You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.


So, I listen.


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