How Poetry Led Me From Disease to Ease

05/14/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Admit it. You think poetry holds no meaning for you and is just something that bored you in school. Maybe you liked a few love poems that first time you fell hard, but mostly, you believe poetry has zero relevance today for your life, health and work.

Perhaps you even call on W.H. Auden to make your argument, as he once wrote the line "for poetry makes nothing happen" in his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats."

Yet when the bottom fell out of my life -- when I was diagnosed with kidney failure and as I waited for a transplant -- poetry made much happen. It ushered me from near-dead to rip-roaring, then later guided me out of a deep depression in the emotional wake of my physical ordeal. Poetry led me to new work, has brought new friends into my life, and now provides a kind of nourishment that brings vigor to my writing and activism. So, I am with William Meredith, in "Talking Back (to W.H. Auden):

Poetry makes such things happen/
sometimes, as certain people do/
at the right juncture of our lives./
Don't knock it, it has called across/
the enchanted chasm of love/
resemblances like rescue gear./
It is like finding on your tongue/
right words to call across the floe/
of arrogance to the wise dead,/
of health to sickness, old to young./
Across this debt, we tell you so.

Poetry offered something like religion and therapy to me when I was most in need, and now it provides essential inspiration and connection. See if my essay below resonates with you. I can't help but wonder how much more healthy and effective we would all be, as individuals and as a movement for progressive change and social justice, if we all paid more attention to the human chorus sharing its wisdom -- my definition of poetry.

On the winter solstice of 2008, I am wobbling in orange Wellies atop a bed of rocks and sea anemones, making my inelegant way to the "big rock." Cupped in my right hand is a medicine bag holding a healing crystal from a shop in Mill Valley, California, along with several more rocks gathered on the trails of Mount Tamalpais. I also hold a handwritten copy of Joanne Kyger's "The Crystal in Tamalpais." My life is not ordinarily so rock-centric, and I am not generally a frequenter of New Age stores; Kyger's poem has inspired my uncharacteristic gathering of talismans. Here at the "clam patch" near Duxbury Reef in Bolinas, I will mark the beginning of a journey -- one that will last three years, with poetry riding shotgun.

It's chilly and I'm feeling faint as I concentrate on avoiding tidal pools of unknown depths. "Jennifer Nix just might drown here" scrolls through my mind like a Facebook status update as I reach the giant boulder, which I now see is intricately festooned with barnacles, sea moss, and leafy strands of kelp.

I take the crystal from the medicine bag and read aloud into the mist. Halfway through the poem, I get to why I've come:

Go out to
the rock. Take out of the medicine bag the crystal
that matches the crystal in Tamalpais. And
if your heart is not true
if your heart is not true
when you tap the rock in the clam patch
a little piece of it will fly off
and strike you in the heart
and strike you dead.

Of course, I do not believe a tiny piece of rock could strike me dead, though I'm happy to see my Tamalpais crystal remain whole after being tapped against what I hope is the famed rock. Nor do I intend to arrive, at this moment, at an absolute determination about whether my heart is true. I aspire only to begin the process of trying to know.

Six weeks earlier, I learned that I was, at age 42, in a state of advanced kidney failure. I had three options: death, dialysis, or transplant. In the tenebrous first days of my new reality, I grew most attached to the idea of death. There were no children to leave behind, and in my disconsolate state, I believed my husband would be better off with any woman but me. I developed the romantic notion of a sojourn at a Mediterranean villa followed by a jump from a cliff. I am not being glib.

But then life seduced me into wanting to stick around. I refused dialysis and spent the next five months subsisting on cucumber and eggplant, wending through the health care maze, and waiting for a kidney.

All the while, I obsessed over whether I deserved someone else's kidney. As my husband, family, and friends stepped forward to be tested as potential donor matches, I couldn't stop asking myself whether my heart was true. "The Crystal in Tamalpais" found me a month into my confusion by way of the coincidences and connections that occur when a heart and mind are open to poetry. My childhood exposure to Catholicism didn't infect me with any particular religious faith, but as I stared down mortality, I craved contact with something beyond the self -- some advice, some confession, perhaps some ethereal, knowing comrade to steady me as I sat in examination and waiting rooms or lay awake in bed every night.

Hoping to satisfy this craving, I reached for the small collection of poetry books I owned yet rarely flipped through. Poetry had not resonated for me in the years I'd spent venturing through the ranks of journalism, publishing, and activism in New York, Boulder, and San Francisco. Perhaps because I now lived in Marin County, I was initially drawn to the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. By chance, I opened first to "Avocado" in Gary Snyder's Turtle Island and landed on these lines: "The great big round seed / In the middle, / Is your own Original Nature-- / Pure and smooth, / Almost nobody ever splits it open / Or ever tries to see / If it will grow."

After devouring that book...

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