Everybody is asking me why I am not myself. I want to laugh—I haven’t been myself for quite some time now. Let’s try a few years, even. There’s been a lot of debate inside my head where I currently am, or where I’ve been, or where I’m off to. It’s just the body that remains. A refusal, maybe. Or the last remaining anchor to what is physical.

There’s work to do, my calendar reminds me. My inbox reminds me. My desk reminds me. My wallet reminds me. The day reminds me, the week that was, the week that will be. It’s time to go back.

My knees ache. I remember walking and walking and walking, a map in my hands, the possibilities in my head. I am not here. I am not myself.

The Art of Disappearing
Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

I woke up this morning in tears, the wisps of a dream leaving me softly. Disoriented, I had trouble deciphering where I was, in the dark. I thought I was back again in a deep pit where no one can hear me for miles and miles, and for a few seconds was filled with terror—not for being alone, but for being back. Then I began to wake up, my lungs expanding. I realise it’s a memory I have of things that didn’t happen—or maybe it did, sometime, somewhere, in another life.

It’s leftover grief, I tell myself. Leftover sadness. The kind that arrives at your door unannounced, saying, have you forgotten? It’s because my days have been good for as long as I can remember it. Difficult, but good, and I treasure that. Life has been both kind and not kind, and honestly, is there any other way to live? For this moment, at least.

Two years I’ve been putting myself back together, and lately I feel like I am finally figuring some things out. Mostly I am learning not to venture too far ahead, because things change. Mostly I am learning that I will always be vulnerable. Mostly I am learning I can’t shield myself from everything, as much as I want to. That it is painful, but I need to be open if I want to spend the rest of my days creating. Mostly I am learning that there are people I can love who can grow with me, and there are people I can leave whom I’ve outgrown. Mostly I am learning what it means to be here, and to stay here.

How have I been living: most days I wake up around six. Two hours later I am at my desk writing. I come up for air every now and then. In the evening I write some more, and when sleep comes, I let it take me.

Sometimes I approach writing and living as I would an altar, the way I was taught when I was a child and still find value in kneeling inside a church. Perhaps this is how I pray: I put my pen to paper, and wrestle with the words and the world on the page. I put my pen to paper, and think: this is just to say, this is just to say.

Negotiations with a Volcano
Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

I promised myself I would do better. If there’s a promise to keep this year, it would be this. Also, maybe: to love myself more, which is something all of us should do, really. To love the self, because one hardly ever does that, too busy looking for someone to love, too intent on finding someone who would finally love you. Also, maybe: to have faith, even if I’m not religious. Also, maybe: to be brave, because I’ve become so scared of so many things, I think.

Also, definitely: to make time for art, to read more, to write more.

Happy new year.

Burning the Old Year
Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

What brought you here today? Was it because of all the sad poems? Was it because of the stupid movie? Wasn’t it because of cruelty? Love is cruel, savage, brutal, barbarous, vicious. Was it love that brought you here? Were you expecting something grand? The heart is like a fist wrapped in blood. Let me tell you a little secret: It makes you the most vulnerable fool in the world.

Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change
Naomi Shihab Nye

Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.

Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.

Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.

Stars explode.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

I’ve barely had any sleep for the past three days. There are only power naps and closing my eyes for a few seconds, before I am spurred back into action, deadlines breathing down my neck. The only breaks I have are trips to the bathroom to pee. I’m so busy I don’t even have time for a cigarette. I’m down to two meals a day, thereabouts.

Anyway, here, an ode to an onion. It’s Friday night. I want to lock myself in my room and sleep until Monday, but my desk is waiting.

The Traveling Onion
Naomi Shihab Nye

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship — why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.

And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or it’s traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

In these last few days that I’ve been so sick, I’ve thought about so many things, but most especially about dying. My body has been made a stranger, and I felt extremely powerless. Time and time again I tried making fists, remembering this poem:

Making a Fist
Naomi Shihab Nye

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

Hello, weekend. Crossing my fingers I get to write and not go back to my desk to work. Or maybe I should go out and see some friends, just to keep the melancholy at bay. A few days ago I have started another journal to talk about the creative process (ha! how pretentious) — well, my creative process, as an attempt to dissect myself and maybe understand if I have a method behind the madness. Been living in my head for far too long; I need to feel that I’m not the only one who’s like this. I feel that by talking about it, by forcing myself to face how I go about my life, then maybe I can learn how to gather my bearings once in a while. And yeah I started it because I can’t afford a shrink (heh), and I really wanted to see one.

Anyway. Here’s one of the loveliest poets ever:

The Rider
Naomi Shihab Nye

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,

the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.

What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.

A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.