There’s a book of poetry I love, one I return to periodically to read in its entirety. Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison was published in 1999, after Kooser had recovered from prostate cancer during the autumn of 1998. In the preface, Kooser describes how the book came about:
During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment…feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… In the autumn of 1998, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning… hiking down the isolated country roads near where I live… One morning in November…I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day…Several years before, my friend Jim Harrison and I had carried on a correspondence in haiku…I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim….as autumn began to fade and winter come on, my health began to improve.
What I love most about this little book of postcard poems to his friend, is its portrayal of someone whose spirit, sensibilities and gratitude are reawakened by the beauty in the natural world around him as he recovers from the ravages of illness and treatment. Each poem is only a few lines each, preceded by a notation on the weather, for example, “breezy and warm;” “sunny and clear;” “six inches of new snow.” Each poem is an observation, yet rich in detail and imagery t often leading to a reflection or insight. For example,
Despite his recovery from surgery and radiation, Kooser’s poems do not focus on cancer, but we are aware of its presence in his life as in these two lines:
My wife and I walk the cold road
In silence, asking for thirty more years…
However, the word “cancer” enters into Kooser’s vocabulary infrequently, instead, emphasizing his delights in nature:
I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival. Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
It is this daily practice of talking his early morning walks, that defines Kooser’s recovery and his gradual awakening the life around him. He shows us not only his physical recovery, but more: his spiritual recovery: life after cancer, yes, but with emphasis on the word, “life.” His poems reflect his and gratitude for life, for the small gifts he observes each day. Every poem is a reminder to the reader to pay attention and notice the world around us. It is a necessary prescription for reclaiming ourselves in the midst of serious illness and recovery.
During the weeks of uncertainty and worry, waiting to find out if I would qualify for a mitral valve clip, I slipped into a constant state of feeling empty. My heart’s functioning had worsened. Worry and blues were constant companions. I continued my morning writing practice more out of comfort than inspiration, but I had little to fill the pages of my notebook. My daily gratitude list grew shorter. My spirits were down, and any inspiration I hoped for was out of reach.
During that time, I was inspired by a “100 day” project from author and cancer survivor, Suelika Jaouad, who had begun watercolor painting to express her cancer experience, I embarked on a 100 day project of my own: writing haiku each morning at the conclusion of my writing practice. Just seventeen syllables, three lines, it seemed about as much as I could muster in my state of emotional lassitude.
The “prescription” took, and now, many weeks later, I continue the practice of writing a haiku to capture my observations and reflections as part of my morning routine. I doubt any haiku I’ve written are particularly poetic or profound, but that isn’t the point of the exercise. That simple daily practice reminds me to pay attention, and use the haiku to capture my observations and reflections. It heightens my feelings of gratitude, serving as a kind of re-awakening, pulling me out of my doldrums.
Paying attention is the work of writing– whatever form of writing you do—and it includes being attentive both your internal and external worlds. Mary Oliver, whose finely honed observations of nature defined much of her poetry, gives you a glimpse of how noticing– paying attention–takes us out of ourselves and into the world around us. Her poem, “Gratitude,” asks–and answers—eight simple questions, inviting you to pay attention.. I’ve often used her questions as a personal writing exercise in my writing groups.
Oliver’s poem is a pattern of questions and responses. She begins with “What did you notice?”
The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…
She continues with the form, a question and response, throughout the poem, for example:
What was most wonderful?
…the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
…so the gods shake us from our sleep.
(From: What Do We Know)
“So the gods shake us from our sleep…” Every writer knows the importance of paying attention to details, to finding linkages between what we notice and how we find meaning in what we notice, as Oliver, Kooser, and other writers remind us. It is also about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s right in front of your eyes, discovering not only the beauty, but your emotions and reflections to inform your writing. As the writer Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”
“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.”
—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
This week, open yourself to really noticing the world around you. Look out the window, take a walk, meander along a trail in the woods or near a stream or the sea. Take in the wealth of sights, sounds, and seasons that are Nature’s gifts. When you return, take out your notebook and write. Take just one thing you noticed, describe it, reflect on it. Perhaps there’s a metaphor waiting to be discovered that informs your feelings, a description of something you want to remember, a poem or a notebook entry. Follow wherever the observation inspires takes you.