This prompt was used to help the writers in the room get deep into the emotional depth of writing. I often give prompts that do this, and reading a powerful poem is one great way to make this happen. I read the following poem out loud to my group. What I wrote in response is below.
Gil tells you his story in the company truck
on your first job under his wing.
He cuts the engine and pulls
to the shoulder, which is alarming.
He’s a big man who talks rough all day
to drillers, but you know he’s kind—
everybody in the office says so. Gil’s
a sweetheart, they say without elaboration.
He rolls to a stop and waits,
which prepares you, I think; it wipes
the fake smile off your face. He clears
his throat, then it streams like a steady well—
that lazy drive home from vacation,
his wife napping in the camper
before she and their daughter switch,
his careful introduction of the boy
who has drifted an entire lifetime
into their oncoming lane. It’s beautiful
really, the way they crash into the boy’s
car, how it parts the boy’s curtain
of long blond hair and death anoints him
with a dot of blood on his forehead.
A single hubcap bounds like a tin deer
across the highway. Gil’s frantic wife
pries the camper open to find their dead girl
whose eyes are closed as though
she’s dozing through a horror movie.
Then silence. Gil turns expectantly to you.
As you sit speechless, he’ll nod
at whatever sound or breath escapes you.
He starts the truck with a roar
and you’re driving again to the field.
All afternoon he babies you with the pipes,
the pump, and the rig. And when you return,
the whole office comes out to greet you,
touching your shoulder, saying your name.
-by Kathleen Flenniken, from Famous
What I wrote in response:
All these little deaths seem irrelevant, don’t they? The aging face, the new wrinkle, sun spot, gray pubic hair. You’re aging; you’re dying. You’re losing shape, strength, flexibility. But it’s not hopeless, it’s never too late to exercise, to take a long walk, to carry your yoga mat with you to the airport.
And you can color your hair and buy expensive wrinkle cream, you can block out the sun with SPF 50, you can exfoliate. There’s always light therapy and laser therapy. What you can’t do is stop the process, as natural as being born.
Still. What to do but gracefully accept it, to care for yourself, to continue to plan, to dream, to ask for forgiveness, to forgive. To work hard at the disciplines of kindness, compassion, patience, self-love. It’s really hard work, living; dying is easy. It’s built in.
So it’s probably not worth the time it takes to complain about the rude flight attendant, the overcast day, the flaccid pasta, the lukewarm tea, the dog hair on your cashmere sweater. Really. It’s more important—and probably hardest of all—just to sit with a loved one and appreciate that little brown mole on his cheek, the key lime of her eyes, that silly way she laughs, or his warmth when you are close.
Even that little bird trapped inside the house yesterday, terrified, flapping wildly, banging against the window pane– how beautiful, that moment, when it finally broke free.