Holding on, and Letting Go: Mindy Abbott on Joy and Pain

I’d like to welcome Mindy Abbott to my blog. Mindy and I met a few years ago at Howard Community College’s Blackbird Poetry Festival, the college’s annual celebration of poetry held every April.  More recently, Mindy and I have worked together in an informal critique group, punctuated by homemade meals shared across our kitchen tables.  Mindy brings a wealth of experience as a counselor, teacher, writer, and of course, a wonderful friend. Welcome, Mindy!

“It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.”
Billy Collins ~ On Turning Ten

Mindy Abbott, Montepulciano, Italy
Mindy Abbott, Montepulciano, Italy

In my earliest memory I am sitting in cool, soft grass on a hot day, peaceful in a big, white tent. Big kids’ voices sing. I am too young to know all the words, but these I remember: “Yes, Jesus loves me…” I am safe, part of a community, and loved.

My educator parents, adorable younger siblings, and extended family made my young life beautiful. Mom created my hand-smocked dresses. Both my father and grandfather cuddled me while reading books of rhymes and fairy tales. I lived my life with my senses, playing among lilies of the valley, inhaling their scent, exploring their tiny white bells and surprisingly sturdy little stems. I stretched out with my dad on the beach of a Maine lake, naming the constellations and seeing, for the first time, the dancing pink and green aurora borealis – the northern lights. Life was magical. Our family was not fancy, but was rich in things that really mattered. We gave thanks.

As I grew, life became more, well, life. That freckled kid down the street stole my hat and threw it in the highest branches of a maple. I learned to climb tall trees. Sometimes my mother’s body was present while her mind traveled circular paths, but the reading she modeled let me instead travel by tesseract, feel the sting of paint from Michelangelo’s ceiling in my eye. Later, when a real big, bad wolf waited for me on a path one night, I discovered ferocity, and a strong, loving man who would be there for me. So how is it that, when I married and started my own family, I somehow believed that I could keep us all in the big white tent?

“Life is brutiful. The brutal and the beautiful cannot be separated, we must embrace both or neither.”
~ Glennon Doyle Melton, Momastery, 12-23-2011.

I laugh a lot. I thrive in nature, literally stopping to “smell the roses”. That’s the way I was as a young mom. But I believed myths: bad things wouldn’t happen if I were good enough; if I experienced pain, I should “tough it out”; and the big one, that I was in charge. Ha! I picture God laughing at this, saying “Isn’t she just the cutest?” I thought that diligence would protect me and my little family. But, of course, life came along, not as I had pictured it, but the way it really is: surgeries, loss, heartbreak, being transferred by employers from the people and places we loved. I tried to foresee and prevent pain for myself and my family, but it still snuck in, no matter how hard I worked or sincerely I prayed. I tended to react with “well, could be worse!” That was true but, finally, constantly discounting stress and pain wasn’t working for me. Nor, actually the people I loved. Some pain is too important to be cheered up. It needs to be heard, held gently, and honored. There had to be a better balance. I couldn’t control life.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
~ Rumi

As a sailor, I know that I do not control the winds, nor the waves; I can only adjust my sails. I was introduced to mindfulness meditation as a pain and stress management technique. As a teacher, the science of mindfulness results appealed to me. The formula “pain x resistance = suffering” made sense. For example, the first sensation when I lifted a stubborn rental car headrest and heard something in my shoulder pop was pain! But why add worries about future activities that might be affected, images of a year with a non-functioning arm, or self-blame? It just makes things worse. Applying self-compassion to the shoulder, then doing a meditation on the rest of the body parts that were doing just fine, helped me keep my physical pain in perspective, reduce my blood pressure, and relax.

Mindfulness turbocharged my religious beliefs with deeper awareness, and a stillness that lets me better hear the holy guidance that sometimes comes in a whisper or a nudge. Mindfulness helped me learn patience, acceptance, and peace.

I have retained my childhood sense of awe, adventure, gratitude, unconditional love, and the seemingly paradoxical senses of belonging and independence. I still laugh, bury my nose in roses, and draw on nature the way that deep roots draw nourishment from the earth. But pain has helped me grow. I found and released my myths. I no longer expect prayer to “fix” things, but feel the Holy Spirit with me through the most difficult moments. I listen more intently. I am more sensitive to the way that my energy affects others. My prayers now include a blessing:

May we all be free of suffering;
may we remember that we are truly known and deeply loved;
may we give and receive compassion and respect;
may we laugh; and
may we be at peace, come what may.

If you’d like to explore mindfulness meditation, try these talks by Tara Brach http://www.tarabrach.com/talks-for-beginners/ , guided meditation by Elisha Goldstein https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvbm4ITpAR0, an MBSR course or mindfulness group, or visit the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

Melinda “Mindy” Abbott, BSW, M.Ed., worked in adult and pediatric long-term care before teaching public school in three states. An award-winning teacher in Maryland, she later co-taught mindfulness for children, trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Mind-Body Medicine, and published poems as Melinda Bennington. Her heart resides in family, friends, and nature.

Questions That Have No Right to Go Away

Yosemite forest
Yosemite forest

David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. I love the simplicity of his language and the power of the images he uses. Like the idea of walking noiselessly through a forest, like an explorer stalking important prey. In this case, David asks you to confront a question, but not just any question.  A question that has not right to go away.

We all have such questions. Did I marry the right person? What is my true calling? How can I live more authentically?  For me, the time around the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are the perfect time to ask such deep questions. Surrounded by family and friends, memories and family photos, I often look back on my life or take stock around the holidays. This time of year is ripe for reflection. Full of possibility. Enjoy the poem.  Everything is waiting for you!


by David Whyte

if you move carefully
through the forest

like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
where the only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

~ from Everything is Waiting for You

Holding On by Le Hinton

Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light. His work can be found in The Best American Poetry 2014,  Little Patuxent Review, the Baltimore Review, and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread.

My father died on Monday, May 7, 2001, due to complications from diabetes mellitus. His kidneys had been gradually failing, and he had been in the hospital for a while, again. The Friday before his death, I took some extra time for lunch and visited him in the hospital. I was going to Baltimore for the weekend to see three baseball games. The Yankees were playing the Orioles in a four game series, and I wasn’t coming back until Sunday. I’m a Yankees fan and was looking forward to getting away from work and the unreal world for a while. The Yankees had already won the Thursday night game.

Le Hinton
Le Hinton

When I got to the hospital, Mom and the nurses were standing around Dad’s bed. He had had a hypoglycemic episode and was just coming around. He was drinking some orange juice and Mom was helping him eat his lunch, opening one of those still-tricky-to-open milk cartons that haven’t changed in decades. He was lucid and happy to see me. We talked for a while about how he was feeling, how work was going, and what else I might do besides immerse myself in baseball over the weekend. My sister, my nephew, Dad, and I had all gone to a game at Camden Yards back in ’92, and he wanted to compare notes later. When I had to leave, I leaned down, hugged him, and told him I’d see him on Sunday. I also spoke the most significant words I may have ever said, “I love you, Dad.”

The weekend was a good one. The Yankees won all three games. One of the things I love about baseball is its pace. It allows the time to savor, anticipate, and reflect on each play. That weekend baseball provided me the time to contemplate my life with Dad. Between innings, between batters, I thought about him and how important he was to my life and the lives of my six siblings.

I remembered the time when I was about 13. An older boy was teasing me because of my speech impediment. Since he was bigger than I was and I was with my friends, I did the dumbest thing I could think of. I threw a stone at him and broke his glasses. He didn’t come after me, so I continued walking with my friends. By the time I got home, the boy had come to our house. He wanted me (us) to pay for his broken glasses. I explained to Dad that the boy was making fun of me. Dad made it clear I couldn’t go around throwing stones or anything else just because someone is heartless and unkind. He had already told the boy to go home and that he wasn’t getting any money from us. He let the boy know that if I threw a stone at him, he must have done something to deserve it.

Another time, when I was learning to drive, I drove over a pothole and the rear passenger’s side tire blew out. I was expecting Dad would fix it, but he said, “You were driving, so it’s your tire to change.” He watched out for traffic and gave me some guidance, but I was the one responsible for the tire changing. “It comes with the territory.”

All of those memories and more whirled through my head and heart all weekend. However, by the time I got back to the hospital on Sunday, Dad had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t conscious. At one point that evening, I was alone with Dad. I held his hand and whispered to him “I’m not ready for life without you. I don’t know enough yet.” The next day he passed away before I was able to get back to the hospital. Again I had some time alone with him. Again I held his now-cold hand and this time said, “I guess you’re saying I am ready.” I thought about the time when I was three and Dad would lift me up and try to have me stand on his one hand, balanced high above his head. I was always scared and would hold onto him. But I got to the point I could let go of him, stand on his hand, and almost touch the ceiling. So, it seemed appropriate that day, May 7, 2001, that on my birthday, I’d have to find my balance and let go one last time.

Le’s poem, “Our Ballpark,” is part of Poetry Paths in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and can be found outside of Clipper Magazine Stadium. The project places poetry in public locations throughout the city.”

Clipper Magazine Stadium
Clipper Magazine Stadium

Our Ballpark

This is the place where my father educated us:
an open-air school of tutelage and transformation.
This is where we first learned
to count to three, then later to calculate the angle
of a line drive bouncing off the left field wall.
We studied the geometry and appreciated the ballet
of third to second to first, a triple play.

This moving canvas of color was our art school.
He gave us lessons on impressionistic blue skies and white lines,
the realism of brown dirt and green grass,
and the tangible abstraction of red, white,
and blue waving beyond the outfield wall.

We committed to memory his catechism of morality:
faith and opportunity, fairness and hard work.
We learned that if we are still playing, there is still hope.
But what we came to understand most is that sometimes
for your team, for your family,
a sacrifice is the most important play of the game.

Sarah Browning and Grace Cavalieri: Poetry Workshops Full of Heart

Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is Co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, her first poetry collection. Sarah studied poetry with the masters–mostly by reading their work and exploring the techniques they used in her own work. Sarah, a big fan of the short poem (under 15 lines), led us in a workshop where we read work by Lucille Clifton and then wrote our own short poems riffing on the ideas of lamenting the loss of something dear in our lives or talking about the birth of something–longing, love, and careers were all favorites. As one who tends to work in narrative forms, I really enjoyed writing very short poems and found the condensed poems both challenging and powerful.  Sarah chose Lucille Clifton’s poem “the birth of language” as one of her models.

the birth of language

and adam rose
fearful in the garden
without words
for the grass
his fingers plucked
without a tongue
to name the taste
shimmering in his mouth
did they draw blood
the blades did it become
his early lunge
toward language
did his astonishment
surround him
did he shudder
did he whisper

Mariposa Poets, 2015
Mariposa Poets, 2015

Grace Cavalieri, host of The Poet and the Poem, playwright,poet, and author of the memoir Life Upon the Wicked Stage, took us on a journey through life’s charged memories during the Mariposa Retreat. Grace worked with the theme of fathers in poetry and used Stanley Kunitz’s haunting poem “Self Portrait” as her entree into the past. She talked about the importance of psychological action in a poem and how both action and reaction create a spiral effect drawing the reader deeper into the poem’s world. Robert Lowell’s pome “Father’s Bedroom” reveals the deceased father’s character through the objects he has left behind–“…blue dots on the curtains, a blue kimono, Chinese sandals with plush blue straps.” So much can be gleaned about a person’s life from the objects they leave behind.

After we all read those powerful poems, Grace led us in a brief mediation which wound us back in time to an event or a memory we had about our fathers. All of us accessed potent memories and worked to use either objects or psychological action to explore those memories in a poem. For some, it was an emotional experience, and Grace seemed satisfied with that response and encouraged us to explore the feelings that surfaced. Her firm belief in the power of poetry to frame life’s experiences held all of us in a safe cocoon where we could write and share our work.

Here is “Self Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time in a public park,
that spring I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out, though i could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave mustache and brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year I can still feel my cheek burning.

What memories are calling to you?  Try using either a short poem like Lucille Clifton or objects from the past to talk about one of your parents. Enjoy the challenge!