At the End of a Tumultuous Year a Celebration of Resilience and Hanging In – Five Poems by Hilbert, Stafford, Orr, Hayden and Holm

An Ancient Western Red Cedar – Still Standing

Red Paint

If you look at the cedar
ʔəbil’ čəxʷ gʷəšuuc tiʔəʔ x̌pay’

you’ll see how it bends
č(ə)xʷa šudxʷ ʔəsčal kʷi suqəčil

and doesn’t break
gʷəl xʷiʔ gʷəsuxʷəƛ̓

and you have to learn how to be like the cedar,
gʷəl yaw’ čəxʷ ləhaʔdxʷ ʔəsčal kʷ(i) adsəshuy
ʔəsʔistəʔ ʔə tiʔəʔ x̌pay

how to be flexible and pliable
ʔəsčal kʷi səsq’əčil gʷəl ʔə(s)səpil

and you yourself will not break.
gʷəl xʷiʔ kʷi gʷ(ə)adsux̌̌ʷəƛ̓.

Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert, translated by Zalmai ʔəswəli Zahir, from Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk, by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, Counterpoint 2022.

from Any Time

“Daddy, tell me your best secret.” (I have woven
a parachute out of everything broken; my scars
are my shield; and I jump, daylight or dark,
into any country, where as I descend I turn
native and stumble into terribly human speech
and wince recognition.)

William Stafford from The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998

Aftermath Inventory

Shattered? Of course,
That matters.
What comes next
Is all
I can hope to master.

Knowing, deep in my
Not all hurt harms.

My wounds?
Somehow, I
Grow through them,
Aren’t they also a boon?

My scars?
They might shine
Brighter than stars.

Gregory Orr (1947-) from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, Norton & Co, 2019

These three simple yet powerful poems. And two others that follow, below. They carry my wish and hope for 2024. That any challenges facing me and you, my readers, can be met by Cedar-like pliability and bending. That we will not break. But if we do, my hope and prayer is that, like the speaker in William Stafford’s poem, we can say: I have woven/ a parachute out of everything broken; my scars/ are my shield…” Or like the speaker in Gregory Orr’s poem we can say: My scars?/Someday,/They might shine/Brighter than stars.

I was so taken by the first epigraph poem of this post above written by Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert (1918-2008). Violet was the great grandmother of contemporary Coast Salish poet and memoirist, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe. Violet was an indigenous American tribal elder of the Upper Skagit tribe of the greater Coast Salish community in Washington State and her Lushootseed name was taqʷšəblu, the name also given to her great granddaughter, Sasha.

Red Paint, the poem, stands as the epigraph for Sasha’s stunning memoir Red Paint published in 2022 and Winner of the 2023 Pacific Northwest Book Award and Winner of the 2023 Washington State Book Award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir. And it is clear from the sexual violence in Sasha’s life and other challenges as an indigenous woman in the U.S. she took her great grandmother’s poem to heart. She has not broken.

And I was reminded of Sasha’s memoir and her great grandmother’s poem when I was reading the new memoir by Maggie Smith of the end of her marriage: You Could Make This Place Beautiful. In her memoir, one of her short chapters, a real trademark of the book, has a quote by the great American poet William Stafford. This quote is part of the epigraph excerpt above: I have woven/ a parachute out of everything broken. It is found in the third stanza of Stafford’s poem Any Time.

I was so comforted by Stafford’s line. The sense of resiliency imbedded into it. Violet’s poem has its own wisdom urging us to find out how to bend and not break like a Cedar but Stafford’s poem goes further as if to say even if you do break you can make a parachute out of what is broken and land safely!

A quick aside to say that for anyone not familiar with Maggie Smith, she became somewhat of an overnight celebrity when her poem Good Bones went viral in 2016 (and named by some news organizations as the Official Poem of 2016). She wrote the poem in twenty minutes after a number of horrific tragic events such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Dan Kois, writing in Slate on October 6th, 2020 praised Good Bones in the way it elegantly, wittily distilled a very particular feeling of being afraid about the world and daunted by the challenge of raising kids in it. “Life is short,” the poem begins, “though I keep this from my children.”

Maggie went on in 2017 to publish Good Bones, her third full-length poetry collection. Then after the unexpected collapse of her marriage she published in 2020, Keep Moving – Notes of Loss, Creativity and Change a collection of reflections on life by herself and others along with affirmations she had first published on-line in Twitter to her thousands of followers. She followed this with her fourth full-length poetry collection, Goldenrod in 2021. And earlier this year she published her memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, as part of her journey to come to terms with her marriage that ended after she discovered her husband was cheating on her.

While some critics worried that Keep Moving, which I have not read, was leaning into the category of self help writing, I have found You Could Make This Place Beautiful, tells a moving story of coming to grips, without becoming preachy, with profound loss. I was particularly moved by these excerpts from a chapter titled An Offering:

…..I was not my best self in my marriage, at least not toward the end.

After the divorce I came across the writings of the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. As a man, he was problematic. He drank too much, slept around, and didn’t live as we’d expect a great, wise teacher to live. But every teacher is human…..

Trungpa writes about torma and don. “Possession” is the closest translation for the Tibetan word don—a ghost that causes misfortune, anger, fear, sickness. When you have a don, you are the possession. The anger possesses—owns—you.

Torma means “offering cake.” You offer the torma to your don. You feed the ghost that does you harm, “that which possesses you.” Giving it a little something sweet is a way of saying, Thank you for the pain you caused me, because that pain woke me up. It hurt enough to make me change. “Wish for more pain,” a friend’s therapist once told her, “because that’s how you’ll change.” It has to hurt so much that you have to do something differently. The pain forces your hand.

When I read Trungpa, I thought about my own ghosts differently. Fear isn’t inside me, I’m inside it. Anger isn’t something I’m holding; it’s something that’s held me, possessed me. And being possessed is the opposite of being free.

By the time you’re reading this sentence, I want to have let go, to have wrestled myself free of this ghost, to have forgiven. I want to be able to say, Thank you, pain, for being my teacher.

This book is my torma, my offering. Please take it. Taste its sweetness.

Maggie Smith (1977 -) from You Could Make This Place Beautiful, One Signal Publishers, 2023

What a way to make a parachute from brokenness. To find a way to land safely when the freefall of loss threatens to destroy you. To feed anger, regret, blame, shame, with sweetness. And have it change you. I can say that has been true for me coming out of two breakings, two marriages that ended. I now do see those experiences, as difficult as they were, as freeing and very much life changing in a positive way. Either a bending without breaking or a breaking that weaves into a parachute.

After reading the Stafford epigraph in Maggie’s memoir and then reading the poem where it originated I saw that there was more that came after that line: my scars are my shield. And that led me to think about scars and the American poet Gregory Orr’s poem Aftermath Inventory which is the last of my epigraph poems above.

I love the comfort and hope in these lines. A sweetness in them:

My wounds?
Somehow, I
Grow through them,
Aren’t they also a boon?

My scars?
They might shine
Brighter than stars.

I find Greg’s lines particularly poignant knowing that one of his enduring life scars has been from the death of his brother Peter who was killed in a hunting accident by Greg. Did Greg bend or break. I don’t know but he found a way to recover through poetry and being very open about his catastrophic wounding. And the life giving words he has shared now for decades with others. His way of saying do not despair. Do not give up hope.

I want to end this end-of-year letter with two other favorite poems of mine that tie into the theme of this post. The first by acclaimed black American poet Robert Hayden. What a call out asking God to help save him from his wounds. And using examples from the natural world as a central metaphor in the poem. This is also what the final poem in this post by Bill Holm achieves using the sound of dying Autumn leaves to say this is: the noise of failure growing beautiful.

Ice Storm

Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand
by the window looking out
at moonstruck trees a December storm
has bowed with ice.

Maple and mountain ash bend
under its glassy weight,
their cracked branches falling upon
the frozen snow.

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
My God, than they?

Robert Hayden (1913-1980) from the Collected Poems, Liveright, 2013

August in Waterton, Alberta

Above me wind does its best
To blow leaves off
The aspen tree a month too soon.
No use wind. All you succeed
In doing is making music, the noise
Of failure growing beautiful.

Bill Holm (1943-2009) from Dead Get By With Everything, Milkweed Editions, 1991

No matter what 2024 brings to each of us I hope that difficult and challenging times if they come will not break us without us being able to make a parachute out of those times. And even better may we sway and bend like a Cedar and not break! Stay upright and become stronger. May sweetness come to feed the pain. Huge all bests to you all and thank you for your loyal readership during this year. It means a great deal to me.


  1. Linda E. Roberts
    Posted December 31, 2023 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for everything you shared. May 2024 be most kind to you. ❤️

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 12, 2024 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for being a reader of this blog Linda. So appreciated. So encouraging. Thank you.

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