Lessons I Learned From Poets

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“Don’t let your throat tighten

with fear. Take sips of breath

all day and night, before death

closes your mouth.”–Rumi

When I was 18 at Beloit College, I took a literature class with John which changed my life forever. John was a greying, bearded professor with a musical voice who had us meet at 6am on the Indian mounds outside the brick campus buildings. We would chant the verses of Emily Dickinson, Rumi, and Robert Bly as we all stood in a circle, bleary eyed and breathing in the brisk fall air. In the classroom, we discussed Faulkner, gender issues, the distance between humans, and how the earth could help heal human suffering.

As a therapist, I often ask people to think about their values and not to let themselves become inhibited by fear. Sometimes we need a person to model our values for us. I didn’t know it when I entered Beloit college, but John and his wife Ann did that for me.

When I met John and Ann, I was fresh off the boat from Ohio. In my Midwestern suburb, most adults I knew were well to do, with 9-5 jobs, houses, and kids enrolled in good schools. For many people, this existence was fine.  But I noticed that some of the Buckeye fans with car dealership jobs and 2.5 children around me seemed discontented.

In my adolescense, I resented the life that everyone seemed to think I was destined for. I wanted to break free a path that was distant from nature and focused on making enough money to survive. I buried myself in books and music and waited for something I didn’t know about yet.

John and Ann were what I was waiting for. After forming a friendship with John and Ann at Beloit, I interned at the Beloit Poetry journal in Maine which John and Ann ran out of their yellow 100-year old house in Farmington. The journal published poets like Anne Sexton, Lorca, and William Carlos Williams. I lived in the Farmington dorms and came to John and Ann’s home daily to read manuscripts and discuss poetry with the other members of the journal and eat Ann’s shortbread.

During this summer interning at the journal, John and Ann blew my conception about what is possible out of the water. They showed me that we can create our own realities, and that life can be as full of connection, creativity, art, and rest as we want it to be.

Between reading for the journal and reading literature in my tiny dorm room, I spent a lot of time relaxing with John and Ann. I went to John and Ann’s camp and canoed out into the middle of the pond it was settled on, listening to loon cries fill the night air. I went swimming with Ann in lakes around Farmington, without concern for how cold I felt or what critters were in the water. I picked blackberries at the house that John had built by hand on 100 acres of land after teaching himself carpentry. Ann taught me to knit and crochet and garden. I visited poets who lived without running water or electricity in the middle of the woods.

I was often barefoot, and running, and I felt freer and calmer than I ever had before.

Though I was only witnessing one aspect of it, John and Ann’s life seemed so varied, stimulating and free. For part of the year they lived in a small and quaint apartment in Beloit where they taught students and created. For part of the year, they lived in China, where they taught and mentored students, collected art and travelled.

For the third part of the year, they lived in their ‘permanent,’ home in Farmington, Maine, working at their poetry journal and creating a library in their house for future generations. Ann worked on her garden and developed photographs in the dark room that she and John had built and furnished by attending yard sales and scouring craigslist.

Instead of hiring someone to do the building projects that needed done in their home with the library or at their camp, John and Ann taught themselves carpentry and built the things they needed. They built their farmhouse, and bought their clothes from the ‘bargain nook’ (the place where clothes go that cannot be sold at Land’s End outlet stores). They went ‘dumpster diving’ and hit up yard sales. Ann knitted socks and made rugs. John and Ann used the dying trees around them to make the wood for their wood ovens and to build cabinets and floors and roofs. Before John had gotten his job at Beloit, John and Ann would ski food into their camp (purchased for $6000) that didn’t have electricity or running water.

One of the most important things John and Ann taught me was about the possibility to feel truly connected to and loved by another person. John and Ann modeled a healthy relationship, and I realized that they had built this life together by supporting one another’s interests and respecting one another over their 42-year marriage.

Ann went to Beloit with John, even though she initially didn’t want to. John helped Ann build a dark room. Ann cooked beautiful meals for the poetry journal. Instead of buying one another things or spending a lot of time earning money, John and Ann spent time together, chopping wood or constructing a dock, and they built intimacy.

Coming from Columbus, Ohio, I couldn’t have thought up a life like the one I saw John and Ann living. I was recently lucky enough to go back to go back and visit John and Ann—and I was again amazed at the gifts they had given me as a young adult.

So many of us shy away from what makes us feel alive because we don’t believe it’s realistic or possible. It is. We shy away because fear tightens our throats and we cannot imagine the life we are trying to make. I encourage you to make it anyway.

We have this well of untapped beauty around us all the time. In a book of poetry, in a song, in calligraphy, in what we can create with our hands and learn with our minds. In the winter, we have the bracing air and the quiet woods. In summer, we have the blackberries. When we have no money, we have the love and intimacy that exists between us.

As Mary Oliver writes,

‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.’

Allow yourself to be a bride married to amazement, no matter how much fear tightens your throat. Our life is brief and precious—and more brimming with possibility than we can see on our own.

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Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.