Searching with Shelly Miller, part 2

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.

Chronic Joy: Poetry for Illness

Published August 11, 2020

An update: I wrote this post about Shelly Miller, who passed away November 1, 2020. She had given me permission to share her name, but I was hoping against hope that she would somehow get better. She already knew what she was facing and was already facing it bravely, showing us the way.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other: Mac & Rumi

Published August 7, 2020

Pandemic Journal: An Entry on How We Read Poetry

Published May 1, 2020

In Celebration of Joy Harjo

In June, Joy Harjo was chosen as the new U.S. poet laureate. I’ve spent the month getting acquainted with her poems, which are unlike any others I’ve read.

This poem was written after reading and journaling through her poem “She Had Some Horses.”

The Horse

He got some disease but before we could figure out what

it was he ran off, at the solstice. If he could’ve talked, he

might’ve said he’d had enough of us, was joining the wild

mustangs. But he was no mustang, and the mustangs knew

it.

He didn’t know how to find shelter, didn’t realize horses

don’t kill to eat, like raptors, or scavenge, like coyotes.

Found no pillows in the wild, no blankets either. Never

patient, always a runner, he ran on, through the sepia

landscape, learning absolutely nothing as his tail swished

behind him.

Back at home we debate: What could we have done?

What should we not have done? Each bit of news of him

pierces us. Not in the heart (it is long grown cold) but in the

retina, retelling ever thing we see and have seen of him.

‘Anniversary’

We never talk

We talk all the time.

No, I mean talk, talk

Well what do you want to talk about?

I don’t know, just talk to me

I been talking to you for forty years.

You don’t concentrate when you talk to me

How much do you have to concentrate to talk?

That’s generic talk. It don’t count.

You want name-brand talk?

No, just talk, health talk, horse talk, I don’t care.

You want to talk about the horse?

If the horse is important to you, then yes, I want you to talk about it.

Not really. S’just a horse. I could talk about my guns.

God no. No gun talk.

Well I give up then. I never talked so much at breakfast in all my life.

You been talking so much you’ve hardly eaten a thing. Want more coffee?

Sure, ‘m all talked out.

Fine..

From Mountain to Mountain: The power of poetry for people affected by trauma

Published May 17, 2019

‘Clean Up Good’

It’s competitive shower season

Now is the time for serious shower-ers only

Those who enjoy languorous strokes beneath the Whirlpool

waterfall need not apply

Contestants toil all year, alternating cool

with heat, daylight with moonlight

There are categories for outdoor bucket showers

shaving in the shower (men’s and women’s levels)

Extra points awarded for the dexterity needed to operate

a hotel shower

The forecast favors the adventurous. Leave behind

your lucky body wash, your ducky towel

Apply your industry to becoming the cleanest, speediest you

you can be

Tickets on sale now

Film at 11

The Cardinals

For the second time since we’ve lived in this house, cardinals made a nest in the mountain laurel.

Inspired by Kristine O’Connell George’s book of poems titled Hummingbird Nest, I’ve written a few of my own haiku about our cardinals. I didn’t notice every detail, so it’s an incomplete narrative.

April 22

cardinal in the nest

safe in the mountain laurel—

plans for motherhood

April 24

Mama cardinal sits

on her nest in pouring rain

all day—never blinks

April 28

“Some birds are people

watchers,” says Tony Hoagland.

Mama Cardinal is.

May 1

Male cardinal busy

back and forth—female sits tight

unmoving, umoved

May 4

three baby bird mouths

open, parents flit for food —

We watch from inside

May 5

Papa Cardinal feeds

gaping baby mouths and Mama,

who feeds chicks also

May 7

baby cardinal pokes

out his fuzzy head—does not

see the nesting snail

May 8

quietly, oh so

quietly, pull up the blinds—

Mama Cardinal’s there

Almost Mother’s Day

through thunderstorms, winds

(damaging), hail, tornado—

Mama Cardinal sits

May 10

baby cardinal stands

gray and fluffy in the nest—

“I’m self-sufficient!”

May 12

Cardinal family pecks

the grass and then flies away—

the nets is empty

June 23

When the cardinals left

I threw out their nest. They’re back.

Rebuilt in one day.

June 28

Mama Cardinal eyes

me from her new-built nest: You

can never stop me

The black hole

at the center of the galaxy consumed

my husband’s sock, stole

the name of the book—you know, the one

that changed my life, took the maple

in the backyard, the house on the corner

It appears to be eating our grass. I blame

the black hole for absconding with his memory,

with her brilliant idea when she sneezed.

The pages of my journal creak as I search

for the poem about the daisy

(or was it amaryllis), words drawn

from ordinary dust

star dust left

over from the supernova

that started it all