Read an Excerpt
A Second Innocence
I wrote this poem the night my father died with a shrug. His heart was hollow and vacant of dreams. He was convinced he didn't matter.
We were in very different places. He lived with my mother in a condo in the heat of Hollywood, Florida, and I lived in an icy valley outside of Norwich, Vermont. One day I was in the office where I practiced psychotherapy. Linda was trying to decide whether or not to divorce Jim, her abusive husband. I was listening intently as she spoke, when suddenly, behind her, there was my father, or what could be described as a shimmering hologram of my father. He stood, staring at me, and then shrugged. He reached toward me. The jade pinky ring he always wore on his right hand slipped past his knuckle and fell to the floor.
Linda didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. Tears fell as she talked about Jim beating her up. My father beat me up, so I understood why she was crying. I reached over to let her know she was not alone. When I shifted my gaze back behind her, my translucent father was gone.
Later that evening, I called my mother, who had just returned from the hospital. She told me in a trembling voice that my father had passed away a few hours before, when she stepped out to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. I wept myself to sleep. The tears broke through me the way the frozen rivers in Vermont break open in the spring. Rivers of reaching, rivers of yearning. I floated to sleep on a surging tide of grief.
I awoke when the night was at itsvery blackest, feeling as if I were not only the river, but also the riverbed. I was soil, fertile, deep, open. In that moment, I understood something, without reason or explanation. I stared at my right hand. It was moving, as if it were a green plant reaching for light. I watched it turn on the old brass lamp next to my bed. I watched it reach for my favorite blue Waterman fountain pen. I watched it stretch toward my worn red leather journal. I watched it write, as if taking dictation from someone other than me, "I will not die an unlived life...."
I got out of bed, carrying my journal over to the old mahogany desk that had been my father's. I could feel the river swelling in my heart. As I sat down, it flowed out of my hand. The tears had turned to ink. The words were a bridge across an abyss my father could not cross. They were his blessing to me.
When I was ten, I read about Helen Keller and Joan of Arc and Wonder Woman, and for a few years I believed that if I did what my heart told me to do, I could help create less suffering in the world, and maybe even a little more joy. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to make the world a better place.
Grownups always had the same reactionthey snickered, patted me on the head, and asked, "But how are you going to make money, Sweetie?" The pats and questions didn't stop my aspiration, but they did drive it deeper and deeper in me until it was a lonely firefly on a late August evening.
Like most kids, I had a secret place. I used to skip to the reservoir behind our house and hide in the reeds that grew on its shore. I loved to pick just the right pebble, put all my good feelings into it, and toss it in the clear green water. I watched that good feeling ripple until they touched all the shores.
I could very easily imagine, sitting there with my chin tucked snug under my knees, that some day, when I was grown up, I'd be able to create ripples of good feelings all the way to South Africa, which was about as far as I could imagine, and those ripples would make the world a better place.
When I was a woman in full stride, I was still secretly trying to make ripples. I never mentioned it to anyone else, but every once in a while, I did something just because my heart rang "yes" as if someone had tapped a secret tuning fork. Just after Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, for instance, I helped organize a gathering of thirty women from around the world to explore the question, "How can we as leaders nurture ourselves while making a difference in the world?"
Women from thirty countries came to a beautiful old mansion in Oxford, England, to explore that question. The first day, my eyes kept being drawn to a woman sitting silently in a big armchair, her chocolate skin glowing in the early autumn sun, her head and body erect. She was wrapped in orange flowered fabric that reminded me of sunsets and jungles and joy. The only words she said since we began the meeting were her name, Nomathemba Luhabe, and the country she represented, South Africa.
"You guys just don't understand," Roz, one of the other facilitators explained in her thick Kiwi accent after the morning session on the second day. "Nomathemba's rhythm of speaking is completely different than you Yanks. She won't talk until we slow down and leave some space so what one person has said can be absorbed before the next person chimes in."
Roz folded her arms across her abundant chest and sat back in her chair. I tried to listen without being defensive. The five of us who had designed this conference were huddled together in a small room. We were aligned in our intentionto create supportive and unifying conversations that really mattered between women from vastly different culturesbut we had been having disagreements about how to do this almost from the beginning. Some of the static was due to the fact that we had been trying to plan this conference electronically for months, without "face time," without money, and without all of us knowing each other. But I think most of our difficulties were due to the fact that none of us really knew how to create the conditions that would support such conversations. All we knew was that they were important. If we were successful, each woman would go back to her own country and create a similar conversation with thirty of her countrywomen. We were going for the ripple effect.
That afternoon, Roz and I facilitated the session and suggested to everyone that we might try to slow things down somewhat by using a small group dialogue format, which seemed to help. But Nomathemba still didn't say a word.
We had asked people to bring a symbolic gift to share with the other women. Each night's session involved ten of us offering what we had brought for the rest of the group. The second night was my turn, but I'd forgotten to bring anything. That afternoon, a thousand ideas ran through my mind. Finally, I flounced down on the bed, and found my journal under the pillow. As I looked at the cover, an idea blossomed.
I offered my gift first that evening. My heart began to knock on the door to my mouth, as I began explaining,
"I'd like to give you the poem I wrote on the night my father died. It means a great deal to me.
"I felt so fragile and alone that night, wondering what my father's life had been about, what I had learned from him, how I could go on without him." I risked looking at the women in the circle. They were in full focus now, attentive, present. With more confidence, I went on,
"I sat with my worn journal and blue fountain pen in my lap, longing for the relief that only writing can bring me. I began to hum lullabies the way I had when I nursed my son. I felt a tingling in my breasts that I always felt when my milk let down. My hand picked up the pen and words began to flow out."
As I lifted the white piece of paper where I had written the poem, my hands began to shake the way they always do when a lot of energy runs through my body. "These words are the footprints I follow. They have led me through cancer and chaos. They remind me who I am and why I am here. Perhaps they will do the same for you."
I began to read, feeling totally still, the way I always do when I speak the poem aloud. When I finished, the silence in the room was vibrating. I stood up and went from woman to woman, giving each a handwritten copy I made that afternoon. I placed the last one in Nomathemba's brown outstretched hand, and went back to the stiff-backed chair I had been sitting on.
The silence was easy, open now. After a few minutes, I leaned forward and asked who else would like to offer a gift.
"Stop." The word resounded across the circle. Nomathemba's blazing dark eyes moved around, resting on each of us for a moment. When she turned to me, a pack of ravenous beasts inside my mind snarled about how stupid I had been to read the poem, how I had gone too fast again, how she was going to tell everyone how insensitive and rude I had been.
"I did not know who you were," she said shaking her head. "I cannot believe I was so unaware, so out of touch with the present moment that in two days I did not realize you were here."
I wanted to look behind me to see who she was talking to, but I knew there could be no one else she was addressing.
As if reading my mind she said, "You do not know me, and I have never seen you before, but I know you." She slipped her hand inside the folds of her flowing sleeve and pulled out a greeting card.
"A friend from the States sent me this card two years ago. I have been carrying it with me ever since." She held it up for me to see. I recognized it immediately. When I was staying at a retreat center in the south of France several years ago, a young woman with flashing black eyes and tangled hair approached me, introduced herself, and told me she had overhead me telling someone my name was Dawna Markova. She said she had read a poem of mine entitled, "I Will Not Die an Unlived Life" in a newsletter and wanted to put some art work with it and make it into a card if I didn't mind. I assumed she meant the kind of personal card you make to send a friend, so I agreed readily. Months later someone sent me the card she had designed, which was being produced, as was a journal, with the poem on the cover, by a California company. By now, thousands of cards and journals with the poem had been sold. When I first found out, I felt as if I had been mumbling a very private thought only to discover a microphone had secretly been placed inside my blouse and my words were being broadcast to ten thousand people in an amphitheater.
Nomathemba stood and walked deliberately into the center of the circle, her eyes locked with mine. Each step was as precise as the words which followed.
"I have been traveling from one end of my country to the other, speaking to large and small groups of women. I explain to them that if we can gather our purchasing power together, we will become a mighty political force." Her words paused, but she continued walking until she stood in front of me.
"At the end of each talk, I read this poem. Thousands and thousands of women have heard it." Nomathemba extended her hands toward me, palms up and open. Her eyes shone as she whispered, "I tell them that I will be the rich soil in which the seeds of their dreams can sprout."
I placed my hands in hers and she dropped down to her knees in front of me. I slipped off my chair onto the floor and my tears fell onto our intertwined hands. We sat like that for many moments. Finally, I spoke.
"Twenty-six years ago, when my son David was five years old, we drove around the world." I spoke directly to her, slowly, quietly. "We lived in East Africa for some time. David learned to speak Swahili and Masai. Then we drove all the way down to your country. The land was so beautiful, it made me gasp again and again. The second day we were in Jo'burg, David went to the park. The police brought him back to our apartment, because he had been playing in the section that was for black children only. They told him he was forbidden to be there, but he told them he wouldn't move to the white children's `cage.'"
When I spoke, my voice was edged, swallowing back the broken glass of tears. "He kept asking me what he had done wrong. I tried to explain that which had no explanation." I sighed and looked at our hands for a moment, and then went on, "Finally, I knew we would have to leave. Three days later, we drove to Capetown and left on a tramp steamer to Singapore. As we pulled out of the harbor, I prayed I would find a way to come back at a time when it was safe to bring a child there, when all who were different would belong."
I heard people sniffing all around us, but I could not stop yet. I had one more message I needed to deliver.
"The gift you have given me today is immense. I have needed to withdraw, to stop working so much for a while so I can write." I peered over my shoulder at the others in the circle and then back to Nomathemba. "The gift you give me is the awareness that I can be true to my own need to be private. At the same time, a reaching from my heart found you. In doing so, I have found my way back to South Africa. In some small, seed-like way, I have been a part of encouraging your people to risk their significance."
To say we embraced would be insufficient. The roots of who we were entwined, the earth sighed in satisfaction, and a new possibility was born.
I once read that the Nobel Prize-winning South American poet, Octavio Paz, after realizing how much of his creative energy he had used to stay out of life instead of participating in it, wrote a poem entitled After, as a commitment that he would no longer be in the great gift of life with hesitation, ambivalence, or reservation, and that he would no longer push life or love away. Because it so impassioned him with its truth, he read it to himself every morning and evening for the rest of his life.
Likewise, before my foot hits the floor each morning, I say the words of my poem aloud, slowly. They are the path, and the light I need to follow it. Each evening, when my feet are safely tucked into bed, I whisper the words again, in order to check whether I have lost the way, gotten crooked, or am still on path. They are how I know if my soul is leaking or burgeoning.
Twenty years living with a life-threatening disease, cancer, brings me into daily conversations with my soul. My healing has depended upon these as much or more as they have on medical expertise. I think cancer was my soul's desperate attempt to get me to pay attention to its needs for intimacy, authentic expression, creativity, and replenishing solitude. I think of cancer as a teacher that was not invited, but has come to my house to visit from time to time nonetheless. It sits on my left side whispering insistent questions that I cannot answer but still must explore: Who am I when I stop doing, when I am not a caretaker as my mother was or a boss as my father was? What have I come here to give? What is unfinished for me to learn, to experience? Am I leaving a legacy that enables others to live bigger lives than I have?
These are questions that belong to all of us. Any life crisis brings up issues of the purpose of one's life and the passion to live. But you don't have to be in a life-threatening situation to want to delve into this kind of inquiry. Some of us are called to it by numbness, fatigue, or boredom. Some of us have the sense that we're not using ourselves to the utmost. Even at their happiest moments, others feel something is missing.
After a long absence, my teacher returned a few years ago. I noticed that I was mumbling the poem each morning, forgetting it each night. The color had leeched out of my voice and the words were rote as if I had been saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep...." Passion and purpose were seven-letter words in a language I had forgotten how to speak.
The past twenty years with cancer have taught me that healing happens in a thousand, ten thousand, tiny, daily gestures. Each of them has led me here now, to a six-month retreat high in the mountains of Utah, surrounded by nothing and no one so much as my own heart, mind, and soul. I came here where winter has cleared the landscape, however brutally. It's given me the chance to see myself and how I am living more clearly, to find the very ground of my being.
The poem is a candle that my soul holds out to me, requesting I find a way to remember what it is to live a life with passion, on purpose. There is only enough light to take the journey step by step, but that is all any of us really needs. This book is a paper trail of the steps as I took them, the ideas, questions, dreams, images, and experiments, the exploration through a dark wilderness of heart and mind.
I do not understand the physics of ripples. I do not know why people who have read this poem write to me from all over the world. I do not even know really if, like my child, it came through me, as well as for me. There is so much I don't know right now.
But I am sure there are many others in this particular time, who, like me, are feeling very disconnected from the world that pours forth anguish like rain. I know there are others who need to learn to live in an interdependent, diverse, ever-changing world, a world in which the unexpected is the expected, and breakdown and reconstruction of everything we know is daily fare.
My journey is no more or less important than yours. It is just the only one I can make authentically. The stories I tell are my truth only. They represent my understanding of what happened like a work of art, not a photograph. If told by anyone else, they would be different. I tell them in hope that what is true for me can reveal what could be true for you. In a way, I wrote this book as a slowly arriving letter to you, in support of your living fully alive, on purpose.
We all feel a tremendous push from the past and a compelling pull from the future to step fully into who we were meant to be. We need courage and time to reorder our priorities and consider internal exploration as important as "our career" and outward success. We need to practice the art of stripping away false notions about who we think we are so we can deal with what is real, and release anything that is deadening to our spirits. We have to learn to reconnect with ourselves so that we can stand for something that is greater than ourselves.