On a beautiful day in December of 2008 I lost my life's savings to Bernard Madoff. My loss was not unique, thousands of us were watching our money disappear -- either in one fell swoop as mine did, or drop by painstaking drop. What saved my life, however, was a poem.
In August and September I saw the value of my stocks shrink towards nothingness. In October, I sold everything and invested it all in a stable fund with the optimistic name of "Starlight."
Two months later came the message on my voicemail: "Madoff was arrested today. The fund was a fraud. Everything is lost."
It turned out that Mr. Madoff, the Wall Street wizard who was arrested for the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, was the secret of Starlight's twinkle. The fund had been 100% invested with him. And now it was 100% lost. Or, to be more accurate, stolen.
"To replay this message press 1, to save it press 9, to erase it press 7, for more options press 0," the voicemail lady was saying into my ear. I sat down on the floor (it seemed the only appropriate place to land given the drama of the moment), and pressed 1.
It was then that what I can only call a miracle occurred. The words of a poem I'd heard ages ago, "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye, began to play in my mind. I had no idea those words were even in my memory! It was like the part in a movie where suddenly the noise of the scene fades and all you hear is the throb of the protagonist's heartbeat over a kind of otherworldly hum. In my case the hum was there, but it was the lines of this poem that pulsed over it:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.
I sat on the floor, paralyzed. The phone dangled from my fingers like a weapon found at the scene of the crime. Nothing seemed to matter but finding the next lines of the poem. I tried to reason with myself: looking up a poem at a time like this seemed crazy. Look up a lawyer, an accountant, even a professional assassin (just kidding), but not a poem.
In the frenzy of days that followed--full indeed of lawyers and accountants, sleepless nights riddled with a litany of "what-ifs", hours of obsessively googling "Madoff" as if an answer might somehow rise up out of the morass of gossip -- "Kindness" was my lifeline. The images -- an Indian dead on the side of the road who "could be you," a cloth of sorrow that wraps round the planet, a breed of kindness that "lifts its head from the crowd of the world" in the face of the deepest loss -- opened the tight fist of my own little drama to the constant awareness that I was not alone.
We need poetry now more than ever. If the current climate of catastrophe is teaching us anything, it is that material acquisition is not the road to happiness--not only because we're losing what we stored for our happily-ever-after, but also because our amassing of stuff is not doing the trick and is directly or indirectly causing devastation to the planet and many of the people upon it. Now is the time, the bell of history seems to be tolling, to discover a security that's not tied to the economy, a homecoming that requires no mortgage payments, a wealth that doesn't drown polar bears, a happiness that has no need to ravage innocent people in faraway lands to keep us in cell phones or diamonds or you-name-it. It's time for a shift to the values of the soul.
Poetry is the language of this shift. It is a direct route to the riches of the interior life. It is available to everyone at any hour of the day or night, and it doesn't cost a thing. But many of us are ignoring it, especially in America.
Perhaps you, too, hear the word poetry and decide to check your email instead of reading on. I can relate. Like so many, I was turned off to poetry early. Miss Tapley's ruler beating out Homer's dactylic hexameters in seventh grade was curtains for my childhood love of poetry. Until recently, I was convinced that any poem I picked up would make me feel left out of some secret society of the elite who could decipher the code.
But the truth is, we turn to poetry all the time without knowing it. The lyrics you played over and over after the break up -- I will survive! As long as I know how to love I know I will stay alive -- is poetry. The psalm you recite when you cannot take another step -- Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death -- is poetry. It is in the prayer you repeat as you pick up your partner's socks one more time -- God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change -- and the pulse of the speech you'll never forget: I have a dream! We are healed by the rhythm, we are harmonized by the sound, we are awakened by the passionate telling of truth.
You see, poetry is actually our most ancient form of prayer. In this world of iPods and e-mails and spam and traffic jams, the opportunities for fragmentation of awareness are thick and fast. A poem, like a prayer, can return you to a seamless place within that has never been broken. You may choose a mystical poem by the twelfth century poet, Rumi -- This longing / you express is the return message -- or a poem of outrage by modern poet and activist Audre Lorde -- There are so many roots to the tree of anger / that sometimes the branches shatter. The ring of truth can wake you up to the present moment. And when you are present, you are open to your feelings. And when you feel, the rigid boundaries that divide you from others can melt. In that moment, the man sleeping on the sidewalk, the woman in a rice paddy in Viet Nam, the child on the streets of Gaza, and your own father, mother, sister, brother, lover are not separate from you; they are you.
At this time in history, there is a paradoxical urgency to slowing down, focusing on what matters, looking into each other's eyes and speaking the truth. Whether you read poetry, avoid it, or have never thought twice about it, find a poem you love today. (I've listed links to resources at the end of this blog.) Let it become your companion. Speak it aloud to yourself and to others. Your whole being will come into alignment. And wholeness is contagious. Others will catch it from you, and they too may taste a moment of peace in the maelstrom of these times.
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