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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

Unlocking the Power of Words: How A Poem Can Transform Your Life

Updated: May 21



It was Saturday, March 16, 2002, 11 days after my brother Doug had killed himself and I was out for dinner with my brother Steve and his wife Bekki. They had gotten married a couple of years earlier and I had not been able to be at their wedding and I had given them a gift certificate to a restaurant in the uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis and they decided to use the gift certificate and invited me along. Truth be told, my heart was heavy. 


In hindsight, I think I was in shock. My brother had died, and I had flown in from Seattle and rented a car and had driven to a small town in the middle of Minnesota. The Catholic Church wouldn't allow us to have the funeral there because of the suicide but the Methodist Church was warm and welcoming. The pastor at the Methodist Church had married my brother Randy and his wife years earlier in another town. He was kind and gracious.


But viewing my brother's body and then waiting for the remains to come back following the cremation and anticipating a terrible snowstorm that threatened to delay the funeral and then experiencing said snowstorm and swimming with nieces and nephews and the funeral and burial and loading plants and large bouquets of flowers into cars and the dispersal of family after spending so much time together and then off to the small town where I grew up for a week of opening sympathy cards and sending out thank you notes... it was all so very overwhelming. 


Following all that, I had driven back to the Twin Cities from my hometown. That was when my oldest brother had asked if I wanted to go out for dinner. We would use the gift certificate I had given them.


I didn't feel much like eating. I didn't feel much of anything. We got down to Uptown a little early and we decided to wander around the bookstore in Calhoun Square. They had stacks of titles of books in the bargain section. 


100 Easy Beet Recipes. 

Famous Race Cars from the 1960s. 

Plants Native to the Midwest. 

Will Your Way out of Depression NOW. 


I remembered the italics on the word NOW and how silly it seemed. If people could will their way out of depression, no one would ever be depressed. And yet I wondered somehow, if my brother Doug had found that book, would he have died?


Then, in the "new" section, I came across a book with a light blue cover and a white creamer pitcher on the front. The book was titled, "10 Poems to Change Your Life." The book, written and edited by Roger Housden, had 10 poems and the editor’s interpretation of what the poem meant to him and maybe to the larger world. I remember thinking... my God could I use something to change my life. I never dreamed it would be a poem. I randomly flipped open the book to this poem:


The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice--

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do--

determined to save

the only life you could save.


It's like someone had taken a giant book about cooking beets and lumped me over the head. 

Yes, I thought... that was it. One day you finally realized what you had to do and began, although everyone around you was giving you their bad advice... and maybe the advice wasn't even bad... it was just not the right advice for you at that particular time. How does someone else know what is written in your heart and what is right for you in that particular moment?


I bought the book, and we headed out for our dinner where we shared stories and laughter and sadness over salads, mashed potatoes, and chicken breasts.


The next day, I read the book cover to cover on the airplane heading home to Seattle. I reread the Mary Oliver poem many times in the weeks and months that followed. When I found myself in the pit of despair... barely able to drag myself through the days, I would turn to the poem for comfort, inspiration, and hope. I made copies of the poem and kept them in my car, on my nightstand and taped to the bathroom mirror. 


I think of the poem, The Journey by Mary Oliver as the reason I left corporate America and went back to school to get my master’s degree in counseling and psychology. I think of this poem as the reason I became a grief therapist.


I use this poem often with clients in therapy. And while I love to see clients realize they too are on a journey, leaving the voices behind and seeing the stars burning through the clouds, the poem also serves as a humbling reminder of my own experience and the privilege and honor it is to walk alongside people on their journey through deep and profound grief and pain, moving on a path forward, towards hope and healing.


 

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