I Reach for Words

What I'm reaching for is a place to plant my feet, something to lean into, so as to orient myself toward a world filled with those unanswerable questions.

I started reaching on Monday. This is what I do in times of crisis; I reach. I reach for small acts of healing and care, for the tiny slivers of tenderness that tenuously hold together the places we crack when the weight of the world's brokenness is unbearable.

I reach for the people I love; for connection and reassurance and care; an emotional and corporeal human counterpoint to the dehumanization and isolation of violence. 

And I reach for words. I reach for poetry that draws out my breath when it is caught in my lungs; poetry that surprises my heart into movement, expansiveness when it is heavy and turns in upon itself; poetry that feeds the pit of empty in my stomach so that it rumbles again for fire and food. 

I sat on the couch in my JP apartment, watching the news until I couldn't bear to hear the newscasters fill time and air without offering meaning, and I reached for Adrienne Rich.

I opened to the titular poem, "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve." It was that kind of night, when the act of making meaning from violence felt both critically necessary and wholly impossible. I try not to dwell in the unanswerable questions: why now, why this, why so close, why us? Because there's never a good reason, because the questions don't serve me, and because I wouldn't have preferred that it be somewhere else or someone else (it already is someone else, somewhere else, every day).

What I'm reaching for is a place to plant my feet, something to lean into, so as to orient myself toward a world filled with those unanswerable questions. Rich's "Turbulence," on the page opposite "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve" gave me that grounding. 

by Adrienne Rich

There’ll be turbulence. You’ll drop
your book to hold your
water bottle steady. Your
mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
may who ne’er hung there let him
watch the movie. The plane’s
supposed to shudder, shoulder on
like this. It’s built to do that. You’re
designed to tremble too. Else break
Higher you climb, trouble in mind
lungs labor, heights hurl vistas
Oxygen hangs ready
overhead. In the event put on
the child’s mask first. Breathe normally

This, Rich seemed to be reminding me, is exquisitely and precisely how it's supposed to feel. We are supposed to shake and tilt and shudder, supposed to tremble and feel the shock waves. That trembling reminds us that we are still alive and capable of feeling; that we are built to bend but not break beneath the weight of this world - a world that is already both shattered and healing.  We are vulnerable creatures, we humans, and for all that we do to turn from that vulnerability, to forget its press on our shoulders and our chests, to resist its gentle and abrupt reminders that these moments are precious and limited, it remains simply true. It is, perhaps ironically, precisely in that reminder of vulnerability that I found grounding in Rich's words. This is the way of the world. I am not walking it alone or for the first time.

To be vulnerable to the world is to be of the world; to allow ourselves to be transformed by its beauty and its pain, to be connected to something larger than ourselves. Some of those others, walking with me and before me, have offered a path. Breathe normally. Feel the tremble in your hands, the shudder in your chest, the burning in your throat, and move with them. The question at hand is not "will I tremble when faced with the unanswerable questions?" We will, by design. The question at hand is rather, "how do we move with it?" Put on the child's mask first. Attend to those for whom you are responsible. Take good, loving care, and pull each other close. And then remember that all of us tremble, by design. Let our own fragility remind us that each person we see standing before us is vulnerable and trembling. Let our vulnerability inculcate within us empathy and compassion for neighbors, strangers, people whose trembling we will never witness because their fragile, vulnerable, rich, varied lives will be lived on the other side of this beautiful, broken world. Let our vulnerability move us toward shared humanity, rather than away from it. 

While there is no teaching or lesson that can make Monday’s violence and loss (or today's violence and loss, or tomorrow's, or next week's) worth it, that does not mean we should cease the work of making meaning. Monday was the 20th day of the Omer. Yesod she b'Tiferet: foundation and grounding within compassion and harmony. For every reminder of our fragility, may we find sustenance and comfort in our shared humanity; may we reach for compassion and love in response to pain; may the cracks across our hearts let line shine through; may we grow bigger and brighter with each trembling step. 

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How to cite this page

Ware, Joanna. "I Reach for Words." 17 April 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 23, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/i-reach-for-words>.

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