Dear Family and Friends,
There are four chapters in my third book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU New Poems – recently arrived! Each chapter is taken from a line in one of my own poems. In one of those, entitled “BIRTHDAYS,” I refer to my “new imperative” (second chapter heading):
“. . . we could not know
what lay ahead –
how our birthdays that year
would usher in
a new and
different kind of life
when through my loss
I found you again –
but near –
in my new imperative
to tell our story,
to share our love.”
During the five and a half years since Francis’ death, and in particular, when poems started to come, and then, after the publication of each of the first and next two books (our love story, and this latest, second book of poems) – I’ve ended one of my daily prayers, “Come darling Francis, fill me with your spirit. . . ” by asking him: “Give me courage and the will to live – and help me write our books.”
And he has! I had a dream around the time when I sent my publisher the final manuscript of SING . . . New Poems which made it clear that he has. In the dream, the way that Francis firmly took me by the shoulders, and smiling, thanked me for having completed the books, was so palpable, it felt almost like what I related in the poem, “VISITATION,” in the first poem book.
So I fully expected I would be moving on to the fourth book, now. I had even already announced its title: “THIS NEW LIFE A Widow’s Journal”. In fact, since I had already begun writing a third book that initially included both the poems and the widow’s journal – what I had indicated in recent letters (that that fourth book was already “in progress”) – was correct. Correct, then.
But last Sunday, I went into my website’s home page, and I deleted this sentence: A fourth book is in progress: "THIS NEW LIFE Selections from a Widow's Journal".
What happened? Did I – or why did I – lose, seemingly suddenly – the “imperative” to write the fourth book?
Two former students of mine, now widowed, told me last year that my writing helps them. After I offered to mail them copies of this third one, one of them emailed, inquiring: “How do you feel now that the new book has been published?” I responded: “Oh my, what a big question, Mary!”
But I told her truthfully that I felt teary, and, without quoting the penultimate stanza of the poem “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”, I referred her to page 80 and added: “This poem mentions what I’m driving at. In spite of the ‘let that go . . .’ in the last line, it’s still a thought that returns. I’m grateful to have a spiritual adviser with whom to talk this over. It’s good you have your girls to keep you going.” (I was grateful to hear in Mary’s response, that my admission of feeling teary helped her all the more.)
These are the last two stanzas of “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”:
“Ever since your death,
I’ve taken relief in the thought:
I’ll write my books, then die.
But now I know it’s time
to let that go . . .”
The reaction I confided to Mary was strong enough to initiate deep reflection, and some soul searching. In the end, I took it as a sign I needed to do something different from what I had expected was my next step.
I’m aware that several factors compounded in June to make me feel especially vulnerable. But my decision – specifically, to let go of the fourth book, and also, to slow down – was only reinforced by each of the following:
1) I came down with unexpected, acute pain in the left hip. X-RAYS confirmed there’s significant cartilage degeneration in both hip joints. And this was complicated by reactive tendonitis of hip flexor muscles in the left hip. (I’m much better now, and have returned the borrowed canes I used for a few weeks, thanks to yoga which now keeps both hips in good working order.)
As a result of this episode, however, though I will still lead some Dances of Universal Peace (DUP), I decided to hand over to the other two leaders of our “circle” in Portland, the organizing role I necessarily took on since I started it, in 1997.
2) For someone like me who has had to do daily yoga to keep the right hip pain free (as a result of which my health and energy are very good) the shock of having had to use a cane, and of being unable to plant my garden without help, raised a scary question: Will I be able to “age in place”? Some of my contemporaries have moved, or will be moving, to be near their children. Will I be able to live here till I die? Will I be able to keep up with all the work there is to do in maintaining the permaculture? (Then I remembered a neighbor I had hired to help free me to be totally available to Francis at the end. And I talked with her about this, if I need help, in the future.)
3) Turning 50 years old was a big thing for me thirty years ago, but, psychologically, turning 80 is huge. After over a year of being in awe of this fact (One of my new poems is entitled “I’M GLAD I’M OLD just thirteen months / from my eightieth year. . . ”) it’s gratifying to realize that I’m actually, honestly, “glad,” about it.
This is what I wrote to a friend only last night, about the “switch” in our DUP circle: “Interesting how much real joy there is in doing that – making way for the next generation. You know, I haven’t been able to completely shake off what I wrote in more than one of my poems, such as this one – “I’M GLAD I’M OLD” . . . or “EN ROUTE” which refer to my willingness to be reunited with Francis in whatever mysterious way that will happen someday. . . . Ah! The poem “WHEN MY TIME COMES” refers to it specifically. Here’s that poem . . .”
So, the “teary” reaction which led me to a different path, creating a juncture or crossroad, has brought me new resolution, and even deeper joy.
I found myself reasoning like this in favor of putting aside the second book and slowing down:
If the third book, SING . . . New Poems traces my journey through widowhood, and goes even deeper into that experience than the first one could (and it does) – why comb through past journals to assemble selections for a fourth book entitled “THIS NEW LIFE A Widow’s Journal”? Especially since it would, in essence, convey in prose, much of the same thing? So my widowed former students need not be disappointed (as one expressed last year) at the postponement of “widow’s journal.”
Besides, if I did write a fourth book, by publication date, I might be 81 or 82 – and so less spry to do the modest book tour I’ve envisioned doing (because I love doing book readings. . . . and I’m good at it too. What I especially like is how it engages people to reflect about their own lives. My last book reading lasted two hours, because of the questions after my presentation.)
Moreover, if I did not write a fourth book – wouldn’t I be more thoroughly living “This New Life” since I’d use that time to be more engaged with my local community? I could be doing some of the things Francis and I did together – e.g. by being more available on the peace and justice front? Or by formally teaching English to Africans, rather than merely informally, after mass? (Francis used to sit in on those classes, and enjoyed interacting with our African friends.)
Writing requires a certain amount of solitude which I actually like, even thrive on. This necessity has been a genuine “excuse” why I have had to isolate myself just a little. But I believe it would be good for me to be more engaged in our Portland community, without sacrificing the solitude I still want and need.
Finally, since I like writing so much, and poetry in particular, there’s no reason why I couldn’t keep myself open to new poems’ coming, even if the likelihood of my publishing another book of poems is far-fetched. When/if more poems come, there’s the Elaine’s Blog on my website where I could “park” them.
I’ve been trying to think of what to call this letter. “With Diminishment – Fulfillment” is an okay title, but “only okay” because the “diminishment” part of it sounds pretentious. In particular, because the “diminishment” is not as dire as it first felt.
But the “fulfillment” is real because, with the arrival of the third book, the three form a trilogy now. And this trilogy is entitled by my late husband’s own words – Francis’ request of me when he would die: “Sing to me and I will hear you.”
My amazement over this remarkable request of his (which inspired two poems in the first book – “WHOEVER HEARD?” and “DUET”) continues, even now, five and a half years since Francis’ death. This was demonstrated some weeks ago when a friend introduced me to another of her friends. When I explained this simple fact to her, both of us were caught in the emotion of this exceptional and loving request Francis made of me. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. Nor would I want to!
Gratitude and Love to all,
PS: SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – New Poems is available through Amazon and at local bookstores and selected libraries in the greater Portland area (including Biddeford ME). Through my website www.elainemcgillicuddy.com you can also order a book from my local bookstore in Portland ME – Longfellow Books which has multiple copies.