Reflections for Growth in 2015
Today’s post is a meditation on how to respond effectively and creatively in the face of difficult circumstances, whether it be global turmoil or personal grief. ISM students engage with many of these issues in their studies and in conversation with each other. Bethany Carlson (M.Div.) is a second-year student in the ISM, where she works extensively with the relationship between poetry and faith. Her first collection of poetry, Diadem Me, was recently published by MIEL press.
“As a poet and student in the ISM, I seek words and language textures to vivify my understanding of events in the world around me.”
As the contemporary American poet Aracelis Girmay puts it in the haunting epigraph to Elegy: What to do with this knowledge/ that our living is not guaranteed? It’s a question that demands our attention as the new year begins, already scarred by yet another Al Qaeda attack in Yemen; the deaths of a dozen journalists at Charlie Hebdo; and most recently, 2,000 estimated Nigerian deaths by Boko Haram, the same militant group responsible for the disappearance of 200 school girls last spring.
We’d already seen a lot of sorrow in 2014—too much. Ebola raged in West Africa, claiming over eight thousand lives; racial tensions heightened in the United States following the deaths of unarmed black men; over 130 children were gunned down at school by militant terrorists in Pakistan; and deadly wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza continued to dominate the international news. These events are , our history, yes, but they also affect deeply the conditions of our present. We live in a world where quality of life is still based on skin color; where freedom of speech is violated based on religious affiliation. In this world, our living is not guaranteed.
Girmay’s “Elegy” offers a poignant meditation on how to respond to this reality. Instead of curling inward toward the speaker’s internal grief the way laments tend to do, Girmay focuses instead on the redemption and growth that can come out of deep grief.
Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.
All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.
What I love most about Girmay’s poem is its hushed sense of urgency. Its advice is whimsical, nonsensical, even. Instead of directly answering the question it poses in the epigraph, the poem spends time celebrating the intricacies of nature and the delicate work of transformation. “Believe this!” the speaker urges us. In doing so, “Elegy” treats us to a different kind of answer—a truth observable only in the delicate nuances of deflection. Although Girmay does not explicitly link growth to the provision of God’s grace, that is how I read her poem.
I get lost in the poem’s gleaming growing, the provision of beautiful things, the earnestness of tangible and intangible connection (i.e. the indecipherable exchanges of “strangers & parrots” in stanza two)—whether between the nodes of a plant or within the kingdom of touching things. This kingdom is as wonderfully whimsical as it is wholly transient: not bound by the natural laws of the temporal, but ruled by gesture, connection, and light.
The beauty of nature is so arresting that it compels us to interaction. “Touch it,” the speaker seems to be daring us. “Watch it grow—outlive you even.” The point is not practicality or functionality (i.e. shade or usefulness) but rather understanding that growth thrives in connection, thrives in spite of our ability to notice and appreciate it. Understanding on a human level is secondary, the speaker tells us. What is important in the kingdom Girmay cultivates lies within interactions with the unknown. We have limited language to speak about such things, but the speaker implores us to recognize the realm of these delicate exchanges.
I spent the hours leading up to 2015 with friends in Chicago. Never mind that it was all of seven degrees outside—my friends’ apartment is borderline tropical and resembles a thriving greenhouse. Artful ivies thread their way around picture frames. Freshly planted seeds sprout in terra-cotta pots. Succulents. Cacti. Ferns. My friends have collected them all.
Most plants have a pretty straightforward lifecycle. After germinating, the seeds grow, flower, produce their own seeds, and die. Of course there are slight variables, but the pattern is generally predictable. And I’ve been thinking our human lives aren’t so different. Bookended by birth and death, we operate on a narrative plane that is largely foreseeable.
In her collection of creative lectures Madness, Rack, & Honey, Mary Ruefle says it better (that is, poetically):
In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings: no one has yet to begin a life who will not end it. In poetry, the number of beginnings so far exceeds the number of endings that we cannot even conceive of it. Not every poem is finished—one poem is abandoned, another catches fire and is carried away by the wind, which maybe an ending, but it is the ending of a poem without an end.
Poetry is a source of solace to me because of its intuitive ability to escape a sense of linear temporality. The truth of life contrasted so starkly to the reality of death is what ultimately allows the speaker of the poem to urge us to walk out the door with hope. I can look at my friends’ lovely plants and take heart in their growing. For Girmay, growth is a facet of redemption.
Yet sometimes lives veer from their expected plotlines. Sometimes they are shorter or longer than we hope for. “Elegy” reminds us that even in the midst of lamentation, new growth lies latent. The act of recognizing this growth, nurtured by community, is imperative to moving forward in hope even in the shadow of unspeakable grief—especially in the shadow of unspeakable grief.