“Father, I have a problem,” I said. “I’m always tired. I feel like I’m not doing enough, but I can’t stop doing. I feel like I’m failing.”
And then, I proceeded to regale the poor man with all the things I had to do: work wise, home wise, mothering wise, spouse wise, and so forth. “Do other people feel this way, or is it just me?”
“I have a question for you,” he said. “Do you ever stop? You just talked for two minutes straight.”
“Stop?” I said. “Are you kidding? It’s not possible for me to stop. I barely even have time to pray.”
“Why not?” Father said. “If you really wanted to fit in a break, you could, couldn’t you?”
Well, sure, I thought. I could pencil in “break,” Tuesday night 8-9 p.m. I won’t load the dishwasher or fold laundry during that 60 minutes. If, by chance, the kids are in bed and settled, I’ll sit down and watch an on-demand episode of Project Runway
. But, one of the kids will wake up and call. The phone will ring. E-mail will ping. My husband will come in from work and want to chat. I’ve learned that it’s easier not to schedule breaks because then they can’t be interrupted
. And anyway, what does one hour of relaxation do for a busy person in the long run? Not much, my militant brain told me.
“I just feel like there’s no point,” I told him. “I’m always tense. I never really relax.” That’s why, I think, I’ve been heading to bed soon after the kids are asleep, just so that I can force my body into a prone position and say I’m relaxing.
Excuses, right? So the other day, without thinking about why, I randomly picked some beginning lines from four poems in Louise Glück’s Meadowlands
, a book-length sequence of poems in which she interweaves the story of a marriage dissolving with The Odyssey
. I started writing down what these evoked in me and found myself in a more floating place, one that felt like prayer.
Because prayer to me during Advent season had been a searching kind of thing, like this short poem I wrote: Vigils
You will not be defied: I can’t un-deify you.
I talk to you, but the sky is empty.
Your name becomes a hand leading me to a place
where even your name I-am-all-that-is can’t be
So finally, I achieved a “break”—not the type I envisioned, watching TV or taking a bath, but an engagement with myself that I’m sharing with you here. I wanted to show how this type of meditation opened me, made me vulnerable, and helped me see myself in a more loving light. “The beloved doesn’t/ need to live. The beloved/ lives in the head.”
This is what I say in my poems: The dead live in me. My dead. That is, those foremothers who’ve died and inhabited me. And the myselfs who’ve died and won’t leave. Like this: “the skin of walking in wet grass. We don’t say/ good-bye to the dead.” What does it mean, their bones rattling next to mine? I write poetry about how they don’t leave me, and sometimes I struggle to write poems about the living. What’s beloved: smelling this boy baby’s hair and neck, because he came from me. He inhabits me and I inhabit him. And my daughter, her thin bones, her dancing. My wild in her. “Speak to me, aching heart.”
Because what I don’t tell people is this: I wasn’t born with a light heart. I was born with one that aches. “Smile more,” people crow at me. “Why do you look so solemn?” Because some of us are made this way. My hands were always cold. My grandmother would hold them and chuckle, “You’re just cold blooded.” No, that’s not it. Some of us struggle to find the good in everything, the happy among the rotting. I turn inward and listen. I write poetry from what aches.
I make music from the pain. Where does it come from, the hurt? I don’t know, but it was born with me. Do you believe this? “What can I tell you that you don’t know/ that will make you tremble again?”
Three months after we met, my future husband gave me a ring covered in diamonds, and far too expensive, on my birthday in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “What is this?” I asked. And he said, “It’s a promise ring.” I wanted to scream, “Wait, you love me? You want to marry me?” But I didn’t. There was a moon out that October night and the air smelled like the sweet wood smoke all over that side of the canal. But I trembled. My spine rustled. And 10 years after marrying this man, I am surprised at what surprises.
Last night, among the melee of our children’s dancing around the Christmas tree and spilling juice, I read him a new poem. He listened. He was attentive. Finally, he said, “That’s a great poem. Who wrote it?” I said, “Huh? I wrote it.” He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Not that I don’t think you can write great poems. But it sounds like a different person. It’s really good.” And I started to cry. My daughter said, “Why are you crying.” And I told her, “Because I made something beautiful and it surprised Dada.” I think it made him tremble. “Look, a butterfly. Did you make a wish?”
One end-of-summer day, my daughter and I inspected the remaining strawberries on our backyard plants. “They’re like lady bugs,” she said, holding two fat fruits in each of her thin hands. And the red was very red, and I considered it. And, too, each achene, each seed, on the outside of the fruit, which is actually one of the strawberry’s ovaries, with a seed inside it. I considered also that I’d never considered myself as someone who would be a mother, or a good one, and yet here I was looking down at a delicate girl and her strawberries. And then we each ate one, and it was so succulent, as if it was full of that August light. “It’s so good,” she said, juice running down from her lips. And I think I did make a wish then—to remember this moment, and know I am good enough.
I’ll leave you with this poem fragment, which contains another butterfly:
a kind of feast to watch
your sleep as a butterfly nights of snow so hungry
the moon disappears
a thrush living
in me calls
from summers ago
when you laid me
when your hands
and not touch
when plentiful fruit
tell me my name
Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be published by ELJ Publications later this year. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.nicolerollender.com
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Before Mass on the third rose-colored Sunday of Advent, I decided to have a mini heart-to-heart with our laid-back priest who left a computer-programming job at 37 to enter the seminary.