Some books can appear at exactly the right time in your life and help you find your way. Ellen Bass’s book The Courage to Heal was one such book for me in 1988. I was just beginning the journey that far too many women (and men) take to understand and heal from childhood trauma.
Her book was one of several that gave me the support I needed as described in my memoir The Red Kitchen. Here’s how Ellen’s website describes the book:
“The Courage to Heal is an inspiring, comprehensive guide that offers hope and encouragement to every woman who was sexually abused as a child – and those who care about her. Although the effects of child sexual abuse are long-term and severe, healing is possible.”
Certain poems can also stay with us for a lifetime. I can still remember bits and bobs of poems I was required to memorize in school. None of them carried great meaning except for the sound of my heart thumping from nerves when I had to stand and recite them. (I haven’t decided whether this exercise was cruel or helpful…and do they still do this in school?)
And then there are poets and their poems we hold in our hearts for a lifetime. Most of my women friends know Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” and the opening lines: “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees…” It resonated with women in 1986 who were once again challenged by the patriarchy. Her poem was like a permission slip to be ourselves as well as a reminder of how the natural world can provide solace. You might have one or more poems that are near and dear to you and know by heart or read again when the need arises.
I didn’t know Ellen Bass was also an amazing poet until much later when I found her poem “The Thing Is.” I read it again over the weekend and found, like her books, it gave me comfort and courage in our troubled times. With permission, I offer it to you for a moment of reflection and hope.
The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.*
Ellen Bass has said, “I work to speak in a voice that is meaningful communication. Poetry is the most intimate of all writing. I want to speak from me to myself and then from me to you.”
She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University.
Quite by accident I had the pleasure of meeting Ellen two years ago at the January 2020 Pacific University residency in Seaside, Oregon. She and I chatted over lunch one day as though it was no big deal for me to be sitting at the table with a woman who entered my life at a most troubling time and then again with her poetry.
How lucky can a girl get?
To read more about Ellen’s work and to hear her read, go to: https://www.ellenbass.com/about/
*”The Thing Is,” from Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, (Grayson Books, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of Ellen Bass and the publisher.
Photo credits: Poetry section – Nick Fewings, Wild Geese – Shyam, Four leaf clover – Dustin Hughes