All Shall Be Well

The great Irish poet Derek Mahon died on 1st October. In terms of contemporary Irish poetry giants, this was the second great loss of the year. Eavan Boland passed away in April. Both were also influential on the international English language poetry scene. Boland was a professor at Stanford in California. Belfast born Mahon was a member of Aosdána, one of the select writers who received Irish Arts Council support to keep writers writing.

Mahon is the author of one of the poems nominated as a poetry prescription for our Covid19 times by The Atlantic magazine -“Everything Will Be Alright.” You can listen to the incomparable Andrew Scott (The Priest on Fleabag, Moriarty in the most recent Sherlock series) read the poem on this You Tube clip.

You might think from the poem’s title that it’s a bit Pollyanna-ish. But here is a line quoting from the poem to set you right. “There will be dying, there will be dying, …”

It reminds me of the mystic Mother Julian of Norwich, who is famous for her saying “all shall be well.” Mother Julian lived through, and survived, the Bubonic Plague and the Peasant’s Revolt. Catastrophe visits every century. We are not unique. Yet, amidst all that turmoil she set down her mystical visions in a book, Revelations of Divine Love.

I do not think that you need be a theist to contemplate that we need a great deal more love, empathy and compassion in our world. Julian of Norwich was an anchorite. She was literally isolated from the world, immersed in prayer, fasting and entertaining the angels of revelation, which she shared first with the people of Norwich, and then with the wider world.

Isolation can be hard, and harder still for some who rely on literal human connection on a daily basis. But perhaps there is a missed opportunity. A student of mine wrote a wonderful dialogue between grief and gratitude this week. To immerse yourself in loss alone is to miss the connection with its twin, gratitude. There will be death, but everything will be alright.

I am revisiting a poem written for NaPoWriMo 2020 this week, tweaking it and revising. The brief was to write about something handmade, but is really a litany of gratitude.


a Celtic knot clock
was in the Christmas box.  

hand painted silk scarves,
a Technicolor Joseph’s coat shawl  made 
way back in the early 1970s,
knitted coffee mug cozies.

Each year,
jars of pumpkin chutney, 
blackberry jam, apple jelly -
the visitor brings to the door.

Decade after decade,
the meals my mother made daily,
casseroles from leftover ham at Easter, 
tuna melts on Fridays for
when I got off the bus from college.   

My father’s hand touched my mother’s shoulder. 
She turned towards him 
and let me in.   

Copyright© Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved

The world is going through heavy weather. We know multiple kinds of bereavement. But there is much to be grateful for, too. I am reminded that Quakers write not obituaries, but testimonies “to the grace of God as lived in the life of X”, giving thanks and celebrating the luminosity of a life well lived. Gratitude can help us navigate and mediate grief.

Featured image Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash


If only all lives really DID matter…

These past weeks I have been processing my grief over the state of the world, and especially the state of my motherland. If I see one more ‘All Lives Matter’ meme on social media my patience will snap like the taut and frayed rubber band it is some days. Because evidence is very clear that all lives do NOT matter. Ask people of colour. Ask people who are disabled. Ask the single mum juggling multiple jobs and is constantly in debt. Ask any nurse anywhere in the world who is STILL low paid and risking his or her life everyday in our COVID19 world with inadequate PPE. Heck, if you even want to look at the privileged end of the spectrum, ask the female news co-anchor who earns less than her male counterpart!

Everyday we see evidence that ALL lives do not matter. It is not just a divided world, but a deeply unequal world because the operating system is that all lives do NOT matter. There is plenty of evidence that some lives are credited to be worth more. Often they have higher bank balances.

To say ‘All Lives Matter’ to people who have first hand experience that this is not true is to rub salt in a raw wound. It has the same ring of truth to it as “Arbeit Macht Frei”, the slogan over the gates of Auschwitz. Work did not make anyone free there. It was a slogan to pacify. It was propaganda.

Aside from the fact that the phrase has become a dog whistle for white supremacy, what some literalists really are saying is that All Lives SHOULD Matter. That is not the same thing at all. The majority can probably (hopefully) unite behind that qualifying ‘should’ in that phrase. But unity is not exactly part of our operating system either. One would have hoped that a deadly virus disrupting the planet might have had some tonic effect. Sadly, it has not.

Hence, some days I am in deep grief. I am beyond the denial stage. I have experienced the pain and guilt. I have spikes of anger. I have days of depression, crushed by the weight of the wickedness that many deny. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice (or righteousness in some translations) for they shall be satisfied.”

Of course, we will not have that hunger and thirst satisfied until we all start behaving as if all lives actually do matter. That we will have to love the perceived enemy and turn the other cheek just as the late Representative John Lewis did, he who forgave the Klansman that beat him senseless, he who accepted that man’s repentence and apology. That is the true meaning of grace.

Our hearts will have to open up a larger and larger space for that to happen. There will need to be less of the ‘I’ and more of the ‘we, ALL the people,’ not just the person who looks like one’s self, or acts the same, or holds the identical beliefs and opinions. We will need to accept our guilt and repent and then get to that final stage of grief where we find new motivation, become inspired and rediscover hope.

I am waiting to be satisfied. I’ve been feeling mighty hungry and thirsty for a long time. I want to be hopeful. Consider this poem I wrote back in 2016, my longing then for a change in the collective heart, for a world where we find that mislaid moral compass and act with magnanimity. It has been a long time coming. I pray for that collective state of grace every morning.

What Really Matters

It’s been that kind of week
where I have wandered stunned,
blinking my eyes furiously,
weary, wordless.

It’s been heavy weather.
It’s hot somewhere. Somewhere
someone is getting shot
and it’s not so random

who gets to be the duck
in the shooting gallery.
I am weary and tearful, wondering
how it feels

to go through life knowing
you have a target
on your back
for someone to bait and hate?

How does it feel to be
the mother of some son,
permanently on alert,
trying to hide that

big, round bull’s-eye on her
sweet child’s back
just because he is
brown or gay or black?

I want to weep
but there has just been
too much hate this week.
We need so much more

than a safety pin trying
to hold the centre
together.  Risk all for love!
the poet wrote. He was Muslim.

It might start with standing up
to bullies on a tram.
It might end by being
on that same firing line

with the guy who has had
a target on his back
all his life
but this time

he won’t be alone.
It’s not right that it
might matter more
to some

the one who would not let
that guy with the bull’s-eye
on his back go out
into that dark goodnight

on his own. But
it does matter that he
did not go alone.
It matters

that the world
not have a heart
the size
of a pickled walnut.

That someone take a hand
out of their pocket, grab hold
of that marked man,
that they duck and dive

trying to stay alive,
getting home to hug
their mothers and their lovers.

Now that would be a good night.
That would be a better day.
There might still be
a few tears,

but Love
would not have taken
yet another
fatal hit.

© Bee Smith 2016

As I see Moms in yellow t-shirts and Dads with leafblowers in Portland, I see people extending the hand that repents, apologises, that wants to get a son and daughter home safe tonight.

The featured image is an official portrait of the late Rep. John Lewis from Wikipedia.

Plant a Tree and Reforest the Earth

We are living in a season of grief. We are living in a season of mass bereavements – from Covid19 or other causes – where we are limited in our expressions of mourning. We are also facing grief for injustices done. Sadness is an appropriate response. Anger is an understandable response. In my own sorrow I turned to poetry. This is the book I plucked from the shelf.

Alice Walker brought out this complete collection by The Women’s Press in 1991.

Before I tell you about the poem that I turned to, I want to speak as some one who grew up as a white person in a small town that had one black family and two mixed race families. In 1968 I was eleven and the land of my birth was being shriven with unrest caused by civil rights withheld and a foreign conflict that many did not sanction. Protests that turned ugly were on the 6:30 news most summer evenings. (We religiously watched NBC’s The Huntley Brinkley Report in our household.) That raised my consciousness, as well as the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. What I had to help educate myself and build empathy was good reading matter.

My elementary school publicised a subscription book club where you could buy cheap paperbacks every month. I spent a lot of my weekly allowance with that Book Club. As a book worm tween I was able to buy and read books like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a biography of Mary MacLeod Bethune. Because I was also hungry for biographies of women (which were thin on the ground in the 1960s), I understood on some unconscious level the desire of having someone who looks like you reflected in the world. In those days we had a new phrase “role models.” I might not have had the same skin colour as Bethune, but golly she was a Mighty Woman! What reading did for me was educate me about lives that were different from mine, but were interesting and powerfully inspiring. It also gave me context for what was happening contemporaneously. Reading forged a connection that transcended social, racial, religious, and gender differences. It also exercised my empathy muscle and prepared me for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. By puberty I was well informed at just how low humans could go in terms of harming fellow human beings.

So, readers, please give your children books that will give them context to help them understand the why of what it happening at this moment. It will help them in so many ways.

Now, to the poem that helped me write the Sunday Weekly poem and also to navigate my sadness with this moment in our history. The poem is Alice Walker’s “Torture” that runs through a litany of “when they torture your…” loved ones with the response “Plant a Tree.” The final verse runs thus:

When they begin to torture

the trees

and cut down the forest

they have made

start another.

Alice Walker “Torture” from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
Let Us Breathe

All the millions cut down
robbing the biozone of CO2...
All the millions burned
in a Holocaust where we learned
                  Enough is enough.

Plant a tree for George Floyd.
Then plant another and another.
Plant a tree for the strange fruit
hanging for 400 years
from innocent trees. 
Plant a tree in memory. We too soon 
                  But, enough is enough.

Plant a tree for the named and the nameless.
Plant a tree for all those who could not breathe.
Plant a tree of all of us who still cannot breathe.
Plant a green lung to ventilate the planet.
Let us breathe.
Let us breathe. 
Plant a tree.

Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved.
Tree on Yeats Lake Isle of Innisfree
Tree on Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, Co. Sligo, Ireland

Featured image is a Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash

Good Grief!

I began the day pondering the nature of grief. Being a words person, I started by looking up the etymology of the word grief. It is handed to the English via 12th century Old French apparently. The translation is ‘to burden.’  From the 13th century it  came to be synonymous with ‘to oppress’ and ‘to enrage’ But the original burden implied the burden was from a wrong, an injustice.

That is not necessarily the context that 21st century readers would take for the meaning. We are well primed with the texts on the stages of grief elucidated by Elizabeth  Kuebler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying.  Perhaps we apply it too much to personal mourning. Mourning has a different texture and tenor to grief, although the two can be linked.  A personal loss of a loved one can be a literal burden – to become an orphan, say, or sole carer for a large family.  But more often we speak of grief about the space that the bereaved feel at the sight of the empty chair or place at the table. We miss someone who is irrevocably gone.

However, today’s poetry practice tackles collective grief and explores the most ancient roots of the word. Because certainly what the world is experiencing every shade and stage of grief in its most ancient and modern senses. The poem borrows its structure from Kuebler-Ross the ways we navigate grief in our contemporary world.


Good Grief


It’s normal for there to be denial,

to tsunami kind of cry,

to not believe you own eyes,

that it cannot be happening.

Not to us. We are good people.

It’s normal to want to flannel.


It’s normal to feel angry,

to want to punch at walls a lot,

to hurt yourself when powerless,

because you want to hurt someone else so much.

To kill the messenger maybe, you want to raise an army,

or go postal a bit like Carrie off on her arson spree.

That’s how it feels when all comes to naught.


It’s normal to think you can bargain,

to be able to wheedle and haggle it out.

You’d do anything to spare a loved one, right?

Surely we must have left a little bit of clout?

So you go and try to make the best deal this side of heaven.

But doesn’t that sometimes feel like a bit like theft?

I’m telling you. It’s normal to feel sold out at auction.


It’s normal to feel kind of depressed,

to feel all the consequent emptiness.

Loss is loss. Gone is gone.

You ache. You yearn. You feel distressed,

you veer between enlightening moments when

you feel like both a con and a pawn.

It’s normal to feel like that when depressed.


It’s normal to grieve what is bygone, but

acceptance becomes your new normal.

You may model yourself on Teflon, yet

everything absolutely still sticks. Okay? Probably not.

We could look to the classics for lessons – for instance,

Agamemnon murdering his daughter for fair wind and favour.

Today our new normal is to feel not just cursed, but  dishonoured.


Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith


Featured image:

Learning to Live Without America

What a week! What edge of the seat reality TV! What plot twists! What amazing appearances at elevators, like an inverted stage deus ex machina! It’s great theatre if it didn’t impact so many millions of lives. And while millions still are dazzled by the Emerald City and Oz, the Great Wizard was laughed at by the world. Then, remembering the manners their mothers taught them, mildly, with the Grand Wizard. Sorry! The Great Oz.

But I will say it has been plenty fodder for poetry practice. I am now into week three of posting a poem a day. And it isn’t even April NaPoWriMo.

Learning to Live Without America

Everyone gets to grow up
although it can be hard to adult at times.
To have to learn a whole new language
(I do mean cultural patois here)
in which one is never completely fluent.

Yet, I am here to say it
as a kind of living Exhibit A.
It is possible.
Sometimes even preferable.

It was proved oh so succinctly
this week in the Assembly Hall.
Now its okay to laugh at America
because America really doesn’t want to play ball
with the world. Anyway,

America is in love with walls today.
But here is a nugget of fact,
a singular Eurocentric truth,
the pith in the block of concrete
that built the so-called Peace Line.
The plot was lost with the wall. History only paused.
That is all.
When its natural arc is to march
to the tune of the twist in its tale.

But, as I was just saying about walls…

Once you have built a wall
You are on to a loser.
Go look back at the Iron Curtain.
See how that went so well?

Carving up tribal turf,
Installing all those Checkpoint Charlies,
(so kids, go Google it! Start with Berlin,
The Cold War, the creation of Soviet serfdom).

Because once you’ve built a wall
it’s not just about letting people in.
It’s also about allowing things out, which
has a tendency to make people yearn for them to fall.

The Romans tried it with the Picts.
So perhaps the building of walls is all about
holding those empire necklines,
just fashioned out of brick and edict.

It. might be time to have a long new think tank.
Because once you have built a wall
people may not want to be come in.
They may decide to drop you for your
ideological  kink. And then leave you to drown
and go down with the bubbles in your own kitchen sink.

Like the anchorites of the last dark age,
walling themselves in to be closer to God,
you are free to watch from behind your barbed wire even if you do still have nukes.
So it is possible to learn to live without America,
because no one wants to hang out with jerks.

Copyright 2018 Bee Smith