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Poetry Makes Life Last Longer

The end of a year seems a good time to reflect on time: what shortens it, what stretches it. The beginning of this year I eagerly read most of Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (2017). Though I recommend it, I found the text sometimes contradicted the title as I trudged through scientific studies and jargon.

A similar fate awaited me as I read a book about spirituality toward the end of this year. I felt as if I needed to come up for air, and found my eyes pausing over the text and searching the ravine behind our house from the vantage point of our deck for something more, something inspiring, maybe even God.

Then I remembered J. Barrie Shepherd had sent me a copy of his latest book of poetry, entitled Bench on the Bluff, and I set aside my dutiful reading of the somewhat dry tome on the spirit and sought the poetic wisdom of a writer who had been my spiritual director as a young man, unbeknownst to him, one whose books of daily reflections helped me establish my morning prayer routine and inspired my own desire to provide such reflections for others in my books and now this blog.

The image of a “bench on the bluff,” taken from his Maine retirement village’s cliff overlooking the Atlantic, reminded me of a tranquil spot on the palisades of Santa Monica overlooking the Pacific, where, according to an inscription on a circular stone bench (as I remember it) “in the sunset of his life, John P. Jones used to come here every evening to watch the sun set over the ocean.”

At 81 years of age, that is similar to what Barrie Shepherd is doing in what he calls a “chapbook”: “a small collection of poetry…that often centers on a specific theme.” It is dedicated to his and Mhairi’s Yorkshire Terrier, Iona, and “all her canine neighbors.”

In college I had a double major: English Literature and Religious Studies. So I’ve loved poetry from the start, and used to write poetry regularly, like many a youth. But I had to read so much of it, so quickly for courses, and think too much about what made poetry work that my first love became a source of anxiety and even competition. One of my texts, Understanding Poetry (a good book despite a presumptuous title), made me sympathize with Robin Williams’ character in The Dead Poets’ Society who advised his prep school students to rip out the first chapter of a similar text.

Poetry, like art and scripture and pornography, is something you know when you see it. And poetry, when unhurried and absorbing, stretches time for me.

And so it is with Barrie’s poems, and it was all I could do to restrain my impulse to read them all in a few sittings. I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog that I can’t read anything meaningful without a pen, underlining or marking texts to return to. The problem I’ve faced reading Barrie’s book is that I’ve wanted to underline and mark everything. Writing about it as I’m doing now made me want to quote so much of it that I would be infringing on his copyright!

I will never look the same way at the slender month of February or the shimmering surface of a lap pool. I will find haikus in every aspect of my community. I will look to nature and the seasons to welcome my own life cycle. His encounter with the Perseid meteor shower took me back to my own encounter in the night skies above Santa Barbara’s Mount Calvary Retreat House. I will counter the pains of aging with laughter in the wisdom of an “even-older-than-I-am-now lady” advising “When you wake up in the morning and nothing new hurts…you know you’re dead.”

And did I just call him “Barrie”? A person I’ve encountered less than a dozen times, but whose words befriended me in his books and now, continue to “friend” me in email exchanges about my blog. Yes, I feel like we are chums, and I am sitting with him on that bench missing the latest news “in an age of the absence of angels,” but watching:

The breakers steady crash
and crumple as they rolled ashore
reporting on the deepest state of things,
reminding me that they will still be singing here
when all my news has fled like so much sea spray
on these stark, primeval rocks.

Copies of Bench on the Bluff are available @ $10 plus $5 shipping from:

The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd
Piper Shores Retirement Community
15 Piper Road, Apt. K325
Scarborough, ME 04074

Proceeds are donated to charity.

For my other posts that mention J. Barrie Shepherd, go to my website.

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