How do we view our own lives? As a mission? A work of art? A competition? A race against time?
In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, of On Being, Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye described a habit of hers, which she hopes will help her students shift their perception of themselves. When she's teaching, she likes to write on the blackboard the following words: "You are living in a poem."
It's an odd pronouncement, one that upends the logic of creator and created work. A poem is what happens when a poet takes pen to paper and writes particular, well-chosen words on a page. (A rudimentary definition, but perhaps one that is sufficient for this argument...) If I am living in a poem, who is the one crafting the sequence of images, the gathering of meaning, the resonant metaphors that will make the poem a vessel, transferring one person's experience and insight to the mind of another, offering places of connection and a satisfying musicality of language?
If I am living in a poem, am I the creator? Surely not, when so much of what happens in my life is beyond my control.
Or is there another way to explore the question? Instead of searching for the origin of the poem, is it possible to settle into a habit of simply "reading" it, by opening to the mystery and random beauty of life?
I've always had a fascination with the patterns and shapes that appear in sidewalks when the cement cracks, which is, of course, its manifest destiny. After a rain, the lines are more vivid. For a short time, the image stands out.
The shift in perspective Naomi Shihab Nye offers us is a helpful one. This poem that I am living in, others are living in it, too. We are co-creators with the time in history and the place we find ourselves. Together we can make sure this poem has some clear language and good ideas that will help us to live well. We can remind each other to notice the shape of our poem, the way it walks and carries itself into the world.