Poetry is Saving My Life

Last Wednesday, I read Liz Deere’s exceptional blog post, “Life Savers.” In it, she explains the origins behind a question I’ve heard asked, and liked, for a while now: What is saving your life? I encourage you to go read the post, and the rest of Liz’s work. For Liz, meeting around the table with friends was saving her life. Poetry was saving mine.

Tyler had had a long, rough day. I lay down on the couch with him for a while, until he was soothed and asleep, then slipped away and fetched the book I’d started several days earlier: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. I bought the book years and years ago. I’ve even given it to others, on all the highest recommendations, without having read it.

At the moment, I’m galloping through my existing library, trying books I’ve had for years, giving them just 20 minutes to capture me or they go in the “to give away” pile. Even books I finish and thoroughly enjoy, I often put into the “to give away” pile. I don’t need them taking up space on my shelves or in the future’s moving truck unless I intend to treasure them for years. And a great many books, though I enjoy them, are not that way. Many were, but I no longer need them as I once did. I want them to go to people who need their stories, who will read and love them as they were meant to be read and loved.

Several nights before as I prepared to take a long, hot bath, I picked Brown Girl Dreaming because it is a memoir in verse and I expected it wouldn’t take me long to finish. I felt almost manic that night, wanting to get things done, get things through, to add to my piles and give one pile away. But I couldn’t go to sleep that way.

One of the many wonders of poetry is that it doesn’t care about your desired pace. In poems, time and rhythm and pacing and focus exists differently, uniquely, almost-but-not-quite rigidly.

Reading a book of poetry, whether done over years or a few hours, is like slipping your head under the meniscus of the ocean. You can surface after each poem or stay under and explore the depths until your lungs burn and your legs feel leaden. But for every moment you are reading, your body moves with foreign resistance and unearned grace. The currents determine how quickly and how well and they are not yours. They don’t listen to you. Someone else has already decided how this will flow. The experience can leave one gasping and disoriented or invigorated and refreshed. I have enough experience with poetry, like swimming, that I’m usually of the latter. Even so, I can put my head up and find the landscape completely changed from what I remember.

When I finished the last poem in Woodson’s collection, I wrote “Mom” on a blue post it and stuck it to the front cover. Then I curled up next to Tyler and let my mind float again through the words and phrases, images and sounds I’d gathered while swimming. And it sustained me long past when he woke.

The following morning I encountered a photo of Mary Karr’s poem, “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” from her new collection, Tropic of Squalor. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you,” the poem begins, “could be cured with a hot bath”.

Yes, I thought. Brown Girl Dreaming.

A story also surfaced, one I heard Mary Karr tell at a lecture at Georgia Southern when I was still an undergrad there. When Karr was an alcoholic, and when she and her husband were divorcing, she would hear a voice that tried to take care of her. It said things like, “You should make a sandwich.” And when she’d keep listening, it said, “You haven’t eaten all day. You should make a sandwich.” That voice was so kind, so wise, so invested in her well-being that she appreciated it and gradually learned to listen to it. That voice, she told us, she eventually understood as the voice of God.

“VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” she’d titled the poem. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath…”. And at the end, ”Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”

The ocean of poetry is as much a gift from God as the air around us, the sandwich that will sustain us. And poetry is saving my life this week.

Poems:
“I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir
“Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
“Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
“This Happened” by C. K. Williams
“Apostrophe to the Apostrophe” by Eric Nelson

Novels and Collections:
Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Teratology by Susannah Nevison
A Book of Luminous Things edited by Czeslaw Miłosz
On Paying Attention by James A. Autry

Trousseau

Trousseau (n) — the clothes, household linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage

The first and probably last time I encountered this word, I was in elementary school and reading whichever Little House on the Prairie book that Laura gets married in. She and her sisters and mother sew curtains, embroider handkerchiefs, and finish new dresses for her trousseau. They stack finished items in her hope chest, which sounded like such an antiquated concept, I was shocked when I learned that a couple childhood friends had one. For those friends, it was just a place to store things that they wanted to keep into adulthood. Opening my friend Joni’s, peeking inside with her, felt reverent. There was her great-grandmother’s quilt. Some of her baby clothes. And not much else, honestly. We were eight. Marriage, let alone having a home of my own, felt infinitely far away. I forgot about hope chests and trousseaus.

Until Saturday morning. I woke early, played with the dog, chatted with my roommate, and went to the local mall to do a lot of shopping. I had a game plan for where to park, the order in which I visited stores, and what I was looking for in each. I had budgeted and researched for the watch I wanted, the shoes I hoped to find, a new dress for an upcoming bridal shower. All the stores were having sales and I’d downloaded a number of coupons.

After about an hour, I reached Pier 1 to look at nightstands and other furniture for the guest room we don’t yet have a bed for. While there, I examined flatware we don’t need and platters I chose not to register for. Standing in front of a bread pan that said, “Mr. and Mrs. established 2018,” I asked myself, What are you doing?

This wasn’t normal behavior for me. These weren’t my normal spending habits. Yes, I tend to buy nothing for a long time, then buy a lot of needed items all at once. Yes, I like interior design and haven’t had many opportunities to enact my visions on the space I inhabit. Yes, I’m excited for a place I can decorate and arrange to suit our purposes. But I know we don’t need a 2nd nightstand for the guest room yet. That’s one more thing we’ll have to move when we move out, which may only be a year away.

I’d never even been inside a Pier 1 before. Why did I make a point to come here and look at one? Why am I looking at all these platters I won’t need, especially as I already registered for some I like a lot more? And I’ve been on a hunt for new dresses, shoes, and other clothing necessities as if I’m about to move to the middle of 100 acres. What am I trying to accomplish?

Trousseau.

The word fairly floated into my consciousness. I grasped at it, held it in my hands, and let my mind pull forward its connected memories. I couldn’t even be sure of the definition of the word at first. I hear about nesting, the stage in which expecting parents try to make their homes suitable to their coming child or children, including decorating and other, strictly speaking, unnecessary steps. But I hadn’t heard of the trousseau stage, the urge to acquire domestic items for a new stage of domestic life.

Expectations play into this. I’m about to be married. What do married people have/need (other than a spouse) that I don’t? What am I supposed to have?

Making a wedding registry was a firm step down this path. We put everything we think we’ll need on it, and there wasn’t much. So we leaned back and dreamed, thought about what would be nice or helpful. I asked myself how others’ expectations of me will change and what we’ll need to meet those expectations. I also thought about the furniture I’ll be bringing to our new home. It’s only a few pieces, but I still find myself planning and measuring and doodling a lot, deciding where things can go, how to make the rooms look more put together, more finished, and more functional long-term.

Except, I know we could be moving out in a year. It doesn’t need to be long-term functional. Just functional for a year. After that, we’ll reevaluate.

Still, it’s tempting to go after those plans and dreams now. To look at prices and measurements for that cabinet, that nightstand, and a basket for spare toiletries in the guest bathroom. On the cusp of a big life transition, long-term hopes and dreams that feel more immediate, giving me a false sense of urgency to keep working, keep buying, keep organizing.

I know waiting leaves me more options, and that future Katie will be grateful.

And yet, I’m also bringing large tubs full of blankets and winter clothes to place in that future guest room. A couple pairs of boots and both my winter coats are there are well. I’m planning which sheets to bring with me and which to leave for my roommate. What I should do with my old, raggedy towels? What items will I be bringing with me into my marriage?

Trousseau (n) — plastic tubs full of hope and plans

The Wedding Registry

As a wedding guest, I used to only buy “sensible” things like towels and kitchen utensils. Necessities. In the past few years, though, I decided to branch out to what I considered “fun” gifts. I’ve bought newly married couples Christmas movies, nice throw blankets, expansion packs to their favorite boards games, art for their walls, and 2-person floats for the river. Now that Tyler and I are building a registry of our own, though, you better believe I’m going to be as grateful to the person who buys us plates and towels (The patterns will match! I’ve been using the same ratty set of towels since college!) as the person who’ll give us a Scrabble board and posable magnet people for the fridge.

We’re really excited about all of it. We honestly don’t need much to survive, and won’t be moving into a house in need of a lawnmower or garden hose or rolling kitchen island, so at first our registry was really small. But as we’ve grown more used to the idea of receiving so many blessings at once, we’ve thought of more and more items that would be really helpful.

For example, a couple days ago Tyler realized that he doesn’t have a suitcase more substantial than a duffle bag. And in addition to the big party we’re planning, we’re also planning a big trip. I then remembered that my beloved orange monkey luggage tags, which have visited multiple other countries multiple times, are pulling loose and have my maiden name on them.

As another example, last week I took the dog for a long walk with one of my bridesmaids while Tyler made dinner at his apartment. When I arrived, the entryway vaguely smelled like smoke and the fire alarm was chirping. Tyler, who had just finished plating our dinner and scraping the burned pan, hugged me in welcome, then moved a dining room chair to the hallway to try to reset the system. He could barely reach. I knew I’d only have more luck if I wore heels, which was an exceedingly bad idea.

A lot of the items on our registry are things we’d probably buy in one form or another as we needed and could afford them: a ladle, a spatula, a step stool, a new suitcase. But because we don’t need them all immediately, we can add them to our registry. Our wedding season is a rare and touching opportunity for people other than close family to buy us gifts, and for the people we love most to help us prepare for our life together.

It also gives us a little space to dream. What would be nice to have? There isn’t much we need to get by, but what would help? We can keep using the dining room chair to reach high places, but what if we had a step stool? What if we had a couple different sizes of suitcases? What would make the sunroom and porch more enjoyable in winter? What would we like to have on this wall? What would make the next few years a little easier or more comfortable?

We’re really excited to be getting married and to be sharing the day with so many people we love. And we don’t need gifts to enjoy the day or those that will follow. Even though we know that’s also the case with the friends whose five weddings we’ll also be attending this year, we’re excited to be able to bless our friends with board games and new towels, too!

Still, in the flurry of Save the Dates and bridal shower invites zipping through the mail these days, we want to say it one more time: no gift is necessary. For every gift we receive, “sensible” or “fun”, we’ll be thrilled and incredibly grateful. (And our thank you cards have photos from our engagement shoot on them!) But we’d much rather have the blessing of your presence than the blessing of a present.

Since posting, several people have asked us where we’re registered. We are registered here. Our wedding website is here.