Last weekend when we were up in the college town, we went way up high into the sky in a fourteen storey tower. On the fourteenth floor, there is an observation deck with large open spaces covered with decorative metal grates for viewing the land and landscapes all up and down the peninsula, and beyond.
It is quite a sight. The crazed hills and gleaming towers of San Francisco. The blue-dark foothills to the west and the blonde East Foothills across the bay (I am told they’re usually green this time of year, but we haven’t had much rain). The peninsula towns nestled in between the foothills and the hardscrabble shoreline. The bay itself, a bit weary and down on its luck around the edges. The bridges: the Dumbarton, the San Mateo, the Bay Bridge. Familiar landmarks in miniature, sweeping views, astonishment.
This is something that, once upon a time, I would’ve loved. However, somewhere along the way, I developed not exactly a fear of heights — it’s more that my body objects strongly to looking down from great heights in the form of jellied knees and hot flashes. Body to Self: Get away from the edge. Body to Self: Also stop watching your children look down from the edge.
Even though the librarian in my brain wanted to reassure me that nothing is going to happen, another corner of my brain kept saying: “Well, you are smack dab on top of the San Andreas Fault.” You have to admit, the other corner has a point, and she feels the same way about underground parking structures. But I digress.
The bottom line was: I spent most of our time on the observation floor looking at the bells hung in the tower’s rafters. They are at the center of the tower, well away from that troublesome edge. They are enormous and beautiful. They are real — real bells that actually ring instead of, for example, bells sealed inside a ring-tone. They are downright stately, the grand dames of this manmade tower, ready and waiting to sing. The children kept calling out to me, “MOM! Come look at THIS!” And I kept responding, “No thank you, dear, I’m looking at the bells.”
It bothered me to have this reaction to an incredible sight. But, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided there are times to see the vista and times to see the bells. Sometimes life in this crazy, modern world can feel overwhelming. Sometimes you keep looking at the big picture and you don’t know where to start or how anything’s going to end. Sometimes your body says: step away from the edge. I often need reminders to be in the moment. To stop thinking about what I’m going to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, and enjoy eating tonight’s meal. To stop looking at a great, big, long, unreasonable to-do list, and think about two things I will do today. To stop wondering how we’re going to pay for college, and just enjoy this little Kindergarten darling curled in my lap at 2:00 p.m.
It’s like that with poetry, too. Sometimes, it can feel overwhelming to try and make your way in the po-world. There are a thousand journals to sift through trying to figure out where to submit. There are deadlines flying by your head every time you turn around. There are books to be written, do you hear me, books! Seeing the bells helped me remember something I read about Marie Howe (I can no longer remember where or how I found this, and I’ve googled the heck out of it to no avail). She said something along the lines of: “What I understand is one poem.”
Well, doesn’t that sound manageable? And doesn’t that feel like a near-sacred commitment? Dear One Poem, you are what I’m doing today.
The world sometimes seems all-wrong. Terrible things happen. There are too many televised debates. There are hungry children. Books are big, journals are myriad and sometimes hard to pin down, a series of eight haiku on my grandfather’s desk might never happen. These are the times to step away from the edge of the tower, to step away from the wide angle view. These are the times to see the bells: the curve of her chin as she sleeps; that stack of clean, folded towels; this one poem.