I’ve been writing a lot of poems lately. Cowbird.com went over to a static site, so there is no more posting “new stories” there. I have moved with a lot of other Cowbird writers over to Medium.com. You can find me there at https://medium.com/@susansink and I believe you can follow me even if you don’t have an account on the Medium website.
There are a few recent poems, like really really recent, there. One I wrote in response to an offer for a poster that popped up on my Facebook feed. It’s a poster of “Every Single Bird You’ll See in North America.” It seemed impossible that every bird on the continent could be fit onto a 2’x3′ poster, but every time I thought of a bird and checked the little pdf I downloaded, there it was. I decided to make up some birds we can’t “see” in North America even though they’re there. Here is the poem.
Another came from the experience of tutoring Somali women learning English. It has been a highlight of my week, every Monday and Wednesday morning, to help and encourage them. Here is that poem. By putting them on a magazine within Medium called “Coffeelicious,” I’m getting more readers, who hopefully come back to the blog.
The past two days have been particularly intense in terms of thinking about cancer. First, there is a friend who has been very much on my mind. Spring is confusing, always, but it does seem it has come earlier this year (I say that knowing it could snow and drop far below freezing before May arrives). And every warm day I’ve been thinking of this woman, who I met through a mutual friend, and who I’ve only met once. She is an ovarian cancer survivor of eight years, but her cancer is back. She is on a trial, but doesn’t want any more chemotherapy, and so things are uncertain. She spends as much time as she can on Madeleine Island in Lake Superior. The warm days makes me hope she’s getting good time there or will soon. This is my poem for her. I know it’s a strange poem. In it I hope to capture my sense of uncertainty and tongue-tied nature over her situation and nature and time in general.
Then yesterday I learned about a monk at Saint John’s Abbey, Fr. Mark Thamert, who is dying of stomach cancer. He has had a painful three years of treatment, but having entered hospice a few months ago, he is receiving medication that makes his life pain free and he is discovering many blessings of what he calls “this final chamber.” I learned about him because a Benedictine friend, another tutor, asked me if I was going to his talk at noon about dying. I hadn’t heard about it, and she followed up by sending me a few e-mails he had written recently that were very moving and resonated a lot with me. Last night I was able to access this interview with him online. It is here.
I loved Fr. Mark’s talk, but I have to say some of the interview questions annoyed me. I sort of wish the interviewer had himself been a cancer survivor. Because for people with cancer, particularly where Fr. Mark is now, the most irrelevant question I can imagine is: “If you knew this were your last day on earth, how would you spend it?” I’ve never liked that question, but I really find it to be stupid now. We each of us live as well as we can every day until we die. Our last day is probably spent in a bed, maybe unconscious. We ALL hope we are surrounded by loved ones, or at least not alone. Other questions like this treated him as someone with special wisdom to impart that we are all in need of. I guess that is true in that we are all going to die. However, he doesn’t have any special insight. He has his particular life experience to share– and it is quite a rich experience! And he can offer us comfort by saying that they can do something for his pain, and we can be happy and encouraged by his clarity of mind. He shared the experience he had at the bedside of another monk who died that was really wonderful. But his death is not our death any more than his life was our life.
Fr. Mark also shared some poems. I enjoyed them all, but one struck me right to my core. I loved it as a poem and for its content in the context of dying. It was a prayer, really, by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets. And in this year of so many prayers, the intimacy of this particular prayer and all it suggests, was astonishing. I’ve spent some time recently with the account of the Resurrection and particularly all the times Christ tells his disciples: “You are my body.” and sends them out to carry on the mission, to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Here is the poem, in Fr. Mark’s translation.
What will you do, God…?
by Rainer Maria Rilke
from The Book of Hours
tr. by Mark Thamert, OSB
What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken lie?
When I your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning if you lose me.
Homeless without me, you will be
robbed of your welcome, warm and sweet.
I am your sandals: your tired feet
will wander bare for want of me.
Your mighty cloak will fall away.
Your glance that on my cheek was laid
and pillowed warm, will seek, dismayed,
the comfort that I offered once—
to lie, as sunset colors fade
in the cold lap of foreign stones.
What will you do, God? I am afraid.