After “Everybody,” by Marie Sheppard Williams
In the beginning was a poem.
And in the poem lived an old man
fashioned from the damp and dust of words,
breathing the fresh air of white space.
This man wore a dirty canvas coat,
thick with signatures,
thousands of names in black and blue—
the ink of people at bus stops,
on bridges, in stores,
in factories and hospital wards,
in prisons, on porches,
on street corners waiting for the light to change—
everybody he’d ever asked to sign,
in every place he’d ever gone,
trying to get every soul.
On a certain day in summer,
a woman chanced upon that gap-toothed man
living in his poem in the heart of a book
she took down from a neglected shelf in her home.
As soon as they met, his coat flew up from the page
and built a nest in the tree of her mind.
There it remained until winter blew in
and knocked the coat from its forgotten perch.
She found it in a box in her cluttered closet,
no longer scruffy but new, somehow,
cardinal red instead of brown,
made not of canvas but quilted goose down.
I am part of everybody, she wrote in black
above her name in the middle of the back.
Can I sign too? asked her young son.
Thus was another coat begun,
big enough to carry the world.
Play notes: Perhaps you've heard about my red "I am part of everybody" coat. I started wearing it nine years ago. Anybody who believes that they're "part of everybody" can sign it. This is a tribute poem for Marie Sheppard Williams, whose poem planted the idea for this piece of performance art in my mind. Read Williams' poem here.
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When I said You’re beautiful, you
stared at me without speaking.
Shook your head.
Chewed harder on your gum.
Opened your eyes wide.
Arched your brows.
Stepped back in shock.
Hid behind your shades.
Adjusted your hat.
Tucked strands of hair behind your ears.
Scratched at your whiskers.
Struck a pose in fun.
Smiled behind your hand.
Beamed a grin.
Laughed as if I’d told a joke.
Gazed at me calmly.
Bit your lip.
Wiped away tears.
Covered your face.
Said You’re calling me beautiful?
What do you mean?
Only my mom tells me that.
I can’t talk about this….
Precious to hear you say so—sometimes I forget.
I’m beautiful in my own way.
It’s one of those things you want to tell yourself
but you never fully believe.
I work on it. Every single day.
You’ve got to be at peace with yourself.
You’ve got to know your worth.
Beauty comes from within.
Everyone should wake up in the morning
and like what they see in the mirror.
The world needs more of this.
That’s kind. That’s sweet.
You just made my day.
Thank you. Thank you.
You’re beautiful, too.
Play notes: Last week I watched an hour-long video filmed by Thoraya Maronesy. She'd recorded the reactions of random individuals when she told them simply, “You’re beautiful.” Most of her subjects—an endless parade of ages, colors, and backgrounds—were taken aback by her words. Nearly all of them seemed touched, in different ways. When the video ended, I distilled those beautiful people into this poem.
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Forgive us for writing this brief note
instead of speaking face-to-face.
We thought it better, for safety’s sake.
It’s been hard to know just how to relate
since you first barged through our door.
We’d never met before that day,
yet you didn’t knock—
just swept in like you owned the place
and settled yourself for a nice, long stay.
What were we supposed to do?
Let you move about, but keep our distance?
Lock you in the master suite?
Some thought if we let you have your way,
you’d soon get bored and go away.
Every day you wander room to room,
listing all the flaws in our big old house.
She’s sick, you say, pointing out the cracks
in the foundation and the walls,
the outdated wiring,
the leaky roof,
the leaden pipes,
the uneven floors,
all the crooked windows and doors,
every corner that isn’t square—
problems we never knew were there
or didn’t want to see.
We can always tell where you’ve been inspecting
by the smell that rises up and spreads.
We’ve learned to hold our breath.
When the house at night is trying to sleep,
it fills with the sound of your quiet weeping.
Right now you’re up in the attic again,
rafters creaking beneath your feet.
We’ve laid your suitcase on your bed.
When you finish, please pack and go.
You’ve done us a favor, exposing our troubles,
though we wish you’d chosen another way.
Leave us your list of things to fix.
The best place to start is where we begin.
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In the dark
In the cold
Not trying to give light
Just being light
Not trying to give warmth
Just being warmth
Not holding back
Not needing a sermon
Or a reason
Not hoping for thanks
Or wanting praise
Not fearing puffs of breath
Or drops of water
Or even the snuffer’s cone
Where you stand
As candles do
A little wick
A pillar of wax
Till your burning’s
Play notes: An older poem, brought out of hiding.
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on my 58th birthday, March 26, 2020
May we all survive to another birthday.
May we greet the sun each morning and rejoice in being alive.
May we breathe the miracle of fresh air.
May we honor every moment as a chance to begin anew.
May we root our faith in richer soil than worry.
May we let separation knit us close.
May we see faces besides our own in the mirror.
May we recognize all people as kin.
May we cherish them as much as ourselves.
May we stay home to keep them safe.
May we nurture the body that houses our soul.
May we have adequate shelter, food, water, medicine, and rest.
May we share freely from our abundance.
May we resist the temptation to hoard.
May we ask for help without hesitation or shame.
May we draw comfort from the company of animals, flowers, and trees.
May we befriend the sounds of silence.
May we welcome the intimacies of solitude.
May we dive to the depths of our being and bring up blessings we didn’t know we had.
May we be sanctuary for one another.
May we refuse to dwell in the blindness of denial, indifference, or contempt.
May we tame our temper and carry no grudge.
May we empathize even with those we dislike.
May we gift one another with radical attention.
May we listen to one another as if lives depend on it.
May we speak as if our voice will be the last sound ever heard.
May we explore how to touch without touching, how to hold without holding.
May we not be embarrassed by tears and trembling.
May we learn from our children the joy of unstructured time and the solace of routines.
May we reassure our children about the monsters beneath their beds.
May we create new rituals of togetherness.
May we laugh from our bellies.
May we cultivate wonder.
May we help our society to do better than it has done.
May we examine problems from all angles and talk straight as lines.
May we base decisions on collective wisdom rather than contagious fear.
May we invest our trust in those who are experts, not those who pretend.
May we value health over wealth.
May we dedicate our daily work both to those we love and to the common good.
May we sustain those workers whose invisible labor sustains us all.
May we protect those who put themselves at risk to protect us.
May we transform the impossible into the doable.
May we inquire into the welfare of strangers.
May we stand up for those who are scapegoated and targeted by hate.
May we sing porch to porch until all the world is our neighbor.
May we drop expectations of how hard or long this road will be.
May we pace ourselves as we go.
May we each shoulder more of the load so that nobody stumbles beneath it.
May we prepare ourselves for the unknown.
May we follow the light of our brightest prayers.
May we live together into better versions of ourselves.
May we plant the seeds of a new world in what remains of the old one.
May we remember in the dark hours that we’re not alone.
May we let no one die forsaken, in pain, or untouched by kindness.
May we grieve the lost, though we cannot gather.
May we do right by their memory.
May we not waste a minute of the precious time they should have had.
May we love one another as we would be loved.
May our children survive us all.
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