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Negotiations with a Volcano by Naomi Shihab Nye

I woke up this morning in tears, the wisps of a dream leaving me softly. Disoriented, I had trouble deciphering where I was, in the dark. I thought I was back again in a deep pit where no one can hear me for miles and miles, and for a few seconds was filled with terror—not for being alone, but for being back. Then I began to wake up, my lungs expanding. I realise it’s a memory I have of things that didn’t happen—or maybe it did, sometime, somewhere, in another life.

It’s leftover grief, I tell myself. Leftover sadness. The kind that arrives at your door unannounced, saying, have you forgotten? It’s because my days have been good for as long as I can remember it. Difficult, but good, and I treasure that. Life has been both kind and not kind, and honestly, is there any other way to live? For this moment, at least.

Two years I’ve been putting myself back together, and lately I feel like I am finally figuring some things out. Mostly I am learning not to venture too far ahead, because things change. Mostly I am learning that I will always be vulnerable. Mostly I am learning I can’t shield myself from everything, as much as I want to. That it is painful, but I need to be open if I want to spend the rest of my days creating. Mostly I am learning that there are people I can love who can grow with me, and there are people I can leave whom I’ve outgrown. Mostly I am learning what it means to be here, and to stay here.

How have I been living: most days I wake up around six. Two hours later I am at my desk writing. I come up for air every now and then. In the evening I write some more, and when sleep comes, I let it take me.

Sometimes I approach writing and living as I would an altar, the way I was taught when I was a child and still find value in kneeling inside a church. Perhaps this is how I pray: I put my pen to paper, and wrestle with the words and the world on the page. I put my pen to paper, and think: this is just to say, this is just to say.

Negotiations with a Volcano
Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.

Comments (6)

  • as always, your words bring me life! i miss you!

  • Just discovered this amazing poet, and your post of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem is brilliant!
    Thank you for sharing your light and do take care, too♥

  • […] This poem and the intro speaks to me on so many levels, oh my. […]

  • Matt

    Existence is a tough deal. And it takes a lot of courage to be naked, in front of, and within it.

    To be a naked reflection of both the good and the bad and the depth of being. To surrender, but to still keep afloat, under the waves.

    I tenderly believe that with the questions of self-worth, sometimes merciless questions, there may come an act of life (a simple act, a realization) which shines meaning for others as well as the person existing.

    And perhaps it may be accepted, that life is mostly made of mistakes and beautiful catastrophes, which make up a story of colors.

    Love, I think the sweetest catastrophe, should be treated with care. The childish care of building sandcastles, in imagining they are real homes for the occupants of our hopes and dreams.

    And like sandcastles, love is fragile, and we aren’t made to make it into forever. Not in life, anyways. Maybe Life is the business of being broken in many ways, into revealing something beyond time?

    The meaningful at least exists in the momentary, and often the most concrete momentary is in the words, the images we create. Like locks for the right keys, the keys you didn’t know you had.

    Anyways. Had to come out with these thoughts now. Please, keep expressing and sensing and making sense.

    – M

    • Darren

      …Very thoughtful commentary. The question is well raised, Maybe life is the business of being broken in many ways, into revealing something beyond time?

      It is, perhaps, the pain of breaking that reveals the bedrock, deep within, that sustains the human soul.

      Is it, I wonder, the death of the frivolous shell that we call
      Safety, or,
      That reveals the eternal fire within –
      The spirit of hope and sacrifice,
      That carries us,
      Together with our brave companions,
      Across the pathway of life,
      And beyond?


  • As always, T., you have chosen a wonderful poem, new to me, and you meditate on it in beautifully chosen, wise words.


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