Twenty years ago, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry collection, Red Suitcase, came across the check-in desk at the library where I worked. Captivated by the cover, the title, I flipped through, checked the book out, and wrote down two poems I’ve carried in my head and heart ever since. One was, Shoulders, which I comeback to time and time again; the other was Valentine for Ernest Man, in which Nye tells a secret.
“Poems hide,” she says:
In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
The poem goes on to tell the story of a man who gave his wife two skunks for Valentine’s day. His wife is upset at and he is at a loss to understand her tears. The poem continues, offering the reasoning behind his strange gift.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
In the eyes of the skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
I also want to tell you a secret, not that you asked, but here you are: Poets hide too.
After college, I attended what my professors told me was one of the best seminaries in the country. I got good grades – great grades, in fact. I even got an A in theology. But, in our weekly precept gatherings, I had an often repeated, strange experience.
Ten or so students sat in a circle. Led by a sleepy doctoral student, we discussed the week’s readings. Questions were asked, comments made, and time passed in a smooth flow of conversational give-and-take.
I read the texts (mostly, I mean, skimming is, in my book, completely acceptable when it comes to several hundred pages of Calvin and Barth). I commented too, I raised my hand, opened my mouth, and spoke. Often, without fail, while I talked, the room turned oddly silent. Students stared. I felt I must be speaking a foreign language. I became self-conscious and my comments withered on the vine. After I finished speaking, the room held a weighted pause. Then, a grunt, or someone’s shifting in their chair cleared the air and conversation resumed, often in another direction completely, as if I’d never spoke at all.
Maybe I’m over-dramatizing for effect?
That could be true, but all I can say is, that’s how it felt to me.
Back at our little apartment in the evening, navigating the slim hallway of our kitchen, I explained the experience to my husband. “It’s like my words are lead balloons.” Gesturing with my hands, I clarified, “I launch them up, out, and into the room. They should float, like butterflies or leaves, but instead they land in the middle of the circle with a thud. Then everyone looks around awkwardly before moving on.”
We laughed and let it go.
Fifteen years later, I repeated the story for a friend. “I didn’t quite fit in,” I said.
“Oh, my gosh, of course you didn’t fit in,” he said. “You were a poet among mathematicians.”
A bell went off in my head, my heart, it rang all the way down to my shoes. He was right. I was speaking a different language.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only poet at Princeton Theological Seminary, in fact I’ve met a handful in the years since graduating. Thankfully, the experience wasn’t scaring since my grades helped counter-weight the sense of not fitting in; what I was left with was more of a sense of a question mark hovering over my head. What I was experiencing – me, a serious woman, who lived in a serious way – was a case of mistaken identity.
Some time ago, I fell in love with The Story of Ferdinand. The story of Ferdinand is a story of mistaken identity – because of his great size, and an unfortunately timed bee sting, everyone is convinced that Ferdinand is a prize fighter. Ferdinand is carted off to the bull fight ring in Madrid, but his actions there give everyone – from the Benderilleros to the Picadors and Matador – pause. Ferdinand, who has always loved sitting quietly, smelling the flowers, sits down in the middle of the bull fight ring, completely absorbed in smelling the flowers that have fallen from the lovely ladies’ hair. The crowd is disappointed, the fighters are disappointed, and Ferdinand is taken back home where he sits quietly, smelling flowers, and “he is very happy.”
In this analogy, I suppose, seminary is the bull fighting ring and I led myself there and did my best to fight in the circle I was given, but, still, when I thought no one would hold it against me, I made handbound books with watercolor illustrations, I wrote creative nonfiction, I colored outside the lines.
I’ve grown less and less fond of labels over the years, because of the way they so often restrict and confine rather than opening and inviting. But for some time now, I’ve been trying ‘poet’ on for size and, when I need to find permission to bring all of me to the task at hand, I slip the title “Preaching Poet” or “Artist” on for size.
This week, as I launch my first little poetry book out into the clear, blue, winter air, I’m thinking of the man who gave his wife skunks for Valentines, the way he saw that “nothing was ugly, just because the world says so.” I’m thinking of the courage it takes to be who you are, in a world where fighting is more valuable than smelling the flowers. I’m thinking poets, like poems, hide and present themselves in strange guises and all it takes is the patience, the willingness, the nerve, to live in a way that lets us find them.
Hot off the presses! My poetry book is available now, just $9.99 on Amazon. Stop by, check out the reviews, and order one or two for Christmas.