I am privileged to be in the Acknowledgements for Shelly Miller’s Searching for Certainty. She writes, “Thanks to Megan Willome for your stellar poetry critiques on the poems I included.”
Oh, Shelly, it was all joy.
She contacted me this spring:
“My editor is allowing me to include some short poems as epigraphs for chapters in the new book I’m releasing in October. To be honest, I read them and think are they even well written? I know that sounds funny but I really have no clue as to what I’m doing, just following my instincts when it comes to poetry.“
Of course I said yes. She responded:
“I’m totally open and teachable. This is helpful for me and I want to get better. Honored to have your help!I’m sitting outside, resting in my walled garden, sipping tea. It’s our first sunny warm day in London—feels heavenly.“
Shelly brought her photographer’s eye and her writer’s heart to her poems. And she was as open and teachable as she claimed.
After I sent my feedback, she asked great questions:
I would love to learn why you broke up verses as you did on each of them. And how did you decide to break it up into three stanzas? I don’t have the poetry intelligence to create architecture in that way but want to learn. No rush. Just my random thoughts. I’m wondering if this is something intuitive for poets or learned by experience.
No, it’s not intuitive. We all learn by doing. And Shelly learned quickly.
I have taught several workshops and helped many people with poetry, but I always enter with trepidation. Poetry is such a personal art. Shelly was taking a big risk, sharing with me. How would she respond to my feedback?
“I had to laugh when I read your sweet encouragement about coming into my voice and shorter being what I need to lean into. Laughing with God because your words were a sacred echo.I feel like being concise and clear has been God’s choice of spiritual discipline for me for at least a decade. It’s all leading somewhere and I’m grateful to be a student, but sometimes it can also be frustrating. Thanks for being part of that process. I am learning a lot each time we have these exchanges.“
I learned a lot too. Writing about spiritual topics is hard to do well and definitely not my area of expertise. Shelly showed me how it might be done with full faith and love and without sentimentality.
She came later to poetry, but after reading my book, The Joy of Poetry, she began incorporating it into her life, especially on her Sunday sabbaths. She deeply loved the poems of Wendell Berry.
When Shelly told me my book helped get her into poetry, I started sending her poems. She always responded.
But when she was diagnosed with a massive sarcoma, I debated what poem to send her. Finally I chose one from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us, “For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness.” At Chronic Joy, I wrote about choosing the poem and Shelly’s response. (Although I didn’t say it was Shelly. Somehow I hoped she’d get better.)
There is one stanza of O’Donohue’s poem that makes me think of Shelly’s brief and intense journey with illness:
May you find in yourself A courageous hospitality Toward what is difficult, Painful, and unknown.
Shelly found that “courageous hospitality” and shared it with everyone she knew. Yes, the news that her cancer was terminal hit her hard. But when asked for prayer requests, she asked for simple things, like to be able to enjoy her food, to sleep well, to share good moments with family and friends. She went quickly. She went in peace.
Shelly Miller — our rest mentor — is now at rest.
Next week, what Shelly’s book meant to me. And to read last week’s post on my visits from a Shelly-bird, click here.