Poem of the Week, by William Stafford

60004839212__30E2EEDE-424A-48BE-B9AD-706C3B31C6F8Last fall I began getting letters like this from the president, the vice-president, the NRA, anti-abortion organizations. Not my typical mail. Why me? Then it came to me: in August a friend died, a Marine combat veteran, and in his honor I made a donation to the Wounded Warrior project, which must have triggered a hundred conservative mailing lists.

Given my political leanings, it would be easy to post those letters on Twitter with a snarky comment and watch the equally snarky responses roll in, but that would only make things worse. Here’s the thing: most people are not zealots. You can be a pacifist and still support veterans. You can be an atheist and still respect your neighbor’s need to pray to a God you don’t believe in. You can have deep qualms about abortion and still support the right to have one.

You can despise your uncle’s racist comments and cut off contact with him, or you can remember how he taught you to ride a bike and showed up at all your basketball games. You can remember how it felt when you woke up to your own internalized racism. You can choose to open a conversation with him, one that might open a mental window, one that will take a lot of patience that you might assume neither of you have. 

But you do have that patience. We all do, once we recognize how deep the darkness is, and how easy it is to get lost. 


A Ritual to Read to Each Other, by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


​For more information about William Stafford, please click here.​


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  1. tamaraellissmith · January 11, 2020

    This one brought me from my email over here, Alison. “For it is important that awake people be awake…” I go to bed terrified every night, as I imagine many people do, by the back-turning to truth that people in power here do. It is one thing to be the king with no clothes. It is a very different, far worse, thing to tell the world you love his robe. And some mornings I wake up angry. And shocked. And hopeless. But yes. Patience. Lots of it. And in its folds, some hope hiding, maybe. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • alisonmcghee · January 11, 2020

      Tam, I feel exactly the way you do. This is perfect: “It is a very different, far worse, thing to tell the world you love his robe.” Life online has made things immeasurably scarier – and also given us all warped impressions of how “divided” we are. Fight back with patience and kindness. XOXO


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