“Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.”
from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
My favorite way to spend a morning is on a porch with a cup of coffee and my battered copy of Leaves of Grass. Whitman and I, we talk. His volume of work is actually a time machine, and we zoom through space and time to meet each other often.
I can tell the man anything. He was the first man I was ever myself around. I know he’s very dead, but that’s not actually a concern of mine. He lifted me out of my one-horse-town worldview, and showed me an America I’d never noticed before. Whitman absolutely loves that I come from a longline of truck drivers and alcoholics. He taught me to love my body. To step out onto the open road with free humor. He taught me to ask myself what it means to me to be an American woman at the turn of the 21st century.
But the first gift Whitman ever gave to me arrived right after I received bad news about a family member. It’s the kind of call you get when someone’s off the wagon, someone didn’t make it home, someone’s in jail, someone’s in the hospital. All of a sudden you’re knocked on your ass, and you can’t tell just anybody.
“OMG, girl, how are you?”
“People I love are dying from a disease that no one knows how to talk about, how are you??”
It was a terrible piece of information to be in possession of. It sat in my stomach like a stone. I thought of all of the menial tasks I had to get done, and they rose up like mountains. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to concentrate on the stupid math test I had to take, or get to the appointment I’d made to get my taxes done, but it was still early when I got the call, so I did what I had gotten into the habit of doing: I went out to the porch and waited for Whitman to drop me a line.
I opened to a line in Song of Myself I’d never read before: “you must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of/every moment of your life.”
“Wait. Every moment?”
“Every moment. Even this one.”
I felt such relief. I’d been under the impression that I didn’t have the right to enjoy every moment. I thought experiencing joy was something only people with stability in their lives had access to. I thought I had to wait until everyone else was okay before I could enter that classroom. I didn’t know there was room enough for gratitude and pain in the same heart. That not only could I meet it all right then and there, I had to.
Whitman hooked his arm around my waist, and showed me something different.
“Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.”
from Song of Myself, WW
I subscribe to this incredible newsletter called Brain Pickings. A woman named Maria Popova puts it together, and she’s done a few pieces on America’s good, grey poet. This one is particularly amazing.
You’re free to jump off into the midst of my comment section. I’d love to hear about why you love your favorite poets, or why you don’t read poetry at all!