Jane Mead's "I Wonder If I Will Miss the Moss"
Thoughts on missing and singing.
I Wonder If I Will Miss the Moss
I wonder if I will miss the moss after I fly off as much as I miss it now just thinking about leaving. There were stones of many colors. There were sticks holding both lichen and moss. There were red gates with old hand-forged hardware. There were fields of dry grass smelling of first rain then of new mud. There was mud, and there was the walking, all the beautiful walking, and it alone filled me— the smells, the scratchy grass heads. All the sleeping under bushes, once waking to vultures above, peering down with their bent heads the way they do, caricatures of interest and curiosity. Once too a lizard. Once too a kangaroo rat. Once too a rat. They did not say I belonged to them, but I did. Whenever the experiment on and of my life begins to draw to a close I’ll go back to the place that held me and be held. It’s O.K. I think I did what I could. I think I sang some, I think I held my hand out. from The New Yorker (September, 2021)
Yeah. I think the last six lines of this poem — the moment I read them — became six of my favorite lines of poetry.
I’ve only just been reading Jane Mead’s work, and have found in it the kind of voice and warmth and criticism that marks what might simply be defined — for me — as resonance. In Mead’s work, I notice someone paying careful attention to the world, and paying careful attention to how what they notice about the world makes them love or doubt or sing or grieve or more.
Twenty five years before this poem was posthumously published (Mead passed away in 2019), Mead published a book titled The Lord and the General Din of the World. In it is a poem, “Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make,” which reads, in full:
Jesus, I am cruelly lonely and I do not know what I have done nor do I suspect that you will answer me. And, what is more, I have spent these bare months bargaining with my soul as if I could make her promise to love me when now it seems that what I meant when I said "soul" was that the river reflects the railway bridge just as the sky says it should—it speaks that language. I do not know who you are.
It is absolutely stunning and enriching and almost painfully intimate to read these two poems — one published over two decades before the other — so close together. In the older poem, Mead’s speaker is “cruelly lonely” and has spent “bare months bargaining.” There’s a sense of frustration, of longing. There’s the onset of a love between the self and the world, but there is still so much tension.
In today’s poem, that tension is gone, perhaps in part due to Mead’s lateness of life — to the knowledge of life’s fragility and her own mortality. Instead of the “cruelly lonely,” Mead writes that:
there was the walking, all the beautiful walking, and it alone filled me
The natural world in today’s poem is not a source of tension — tension between self and faith, between certainty and unknowing — and is instead a place of deep compassion. Today’s poem is a wellspring of noticing. In fact, that long stanza at the heart of the poem is, almost simply, a list of what has been offered attention. There are stones and sticks and gates and bushes and mud and vultures. They are each described with the kind of language that signifies a deep care. They are repeated and defined. They are touched, and smelled, and loved. And what interests me the most are the final lines of that stanza:
They did not say I belonged to them, but I did.
Where Mead was once, decades earlier, “cruelly lonely,” here she is asserting her sense of belonging. She is asserting her place in the landscape. Her un-loneliness. Her partnership. These lines — and this entire poem — remind me of a few lines from Jason Shinder’s poem “Living,” written amidst similar circumstances to Mead’s. In that poem, he writes of:
a sense of what it means to be alive long enough to love someone.
I feel that same sense in Mead’s work. A sense — borne from mortality or preciousness or age or other factors — that allows for someone to love themselves enough to admit the existence of love in general. It’s that same sense that allows for these final beautiful lines:
It’s O.K. I think I did what I could. I think I sang some, I think I held my hand out.
I am struck, though, by the tension that exists between Mead’s earlier poem and today’s. In that first poem, loneliness is cruel, and in today’s poem — the most recent one — loneliness gives way to belonging. What exists between these poems? I wonder. And I wonder simply because I experience both of those feelings today, in my own being — I experience the cruel loneliness of being separate from the world and separate from the material mechanisms of the world that cause my loneliness. And yet, I also feel a sense of belonging anytime I am in a place that allows for my attention to exist in an unbounded capacity, or anytime I with someone who allows for such a thing. Perhaps to be alive today, and to attempt to pay attention at all, is to wonder and wander aloud between those poles of cruelty and love, trying to figure out what to do with that feeling that arises in you — a feeling at once gorgeous and perhaps intimately isolating — when you see the light touch the ground in some way, or when you watch the horizon disappear in that place where the water meets the sky, and they exist, at once, as one.
I think this tension — and the ways in which we try to resolve this tension — is one of the hallmarks of modern life. Because so many societal structures have failed, it is no surprise that people feel lonely at times. Feel lonely in their lives, lonely in their emotional insecurity, lonely in their economic instability. And, as a result of such loneliness, there has been such a rise in the forms of positive self-talk offered to us as ways to combat this loneliness. We are told to love ourselves, no matter what. To embrace our insecurity, our difference. As such, we are often kept forever in a state of tension — seeking collective liberation and not finding it. Finding individual worth but not experiencing it amidst collective care.
One of my favorite poems by Mead — “The Outstretched Earth” — exhibits this dichotomy. In the first two stanzas, she writes:
Do you know what whole fields are? They are fields with a dog and a moon. Do you know the answer — for the many? Except there would be vineyards. Meaning there would, as usual, be commerce. Money, and a game of sorts to play it.
Here, Mead acknowledges that the earth — a whole field — can contain both the beauty of “a dog and a moon” and can also be used for “Money, and a game of sorts to play it.” She is at once a lover and a critic. I think that, often, these are one and the same thing.
And it’s that both-ness that makes so much of Mead’s work special. In today’s poem, she writes of life as “an experiment on and of / my life.” Something at once passive and active. She lets herself be both someone who feels light and someone who offers it. She writes of future missing-ness at the same time as she acknowledges missing in the present. And I love that turn of phrase: “held me / and be held.” When I say it aloud, my mouth holds the softness of it. The phrase be held becomes beheld, and reminds me of the word behold and I think yes, that is what Mead is doing — she is beholding.
The older I get, the more I realize that people who are willing to see both (or more) aspects of a given thing, people who are willing to name the painful truths of what a beautiful thing could be, are actually far more compassionate and attentive than our world would like to admit. They are, perhaps, the most compassionate people, because they are proof that part of compassion is complexity, and that it is hard sometimes to hold anything at all. Just the other day, in my AP Literature class, I was handing out our first book — Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones — and explaining our focus on character. I wanted my students to understand that characters are not simply one-dimensional entities that exist inside a book. That rather, they are complex portrayals of people who change and are changed by other people. To do this, I talked about my life. Not my fictional life, but my life. I talked about the people in my life who have changed me, and the ways in which I have been changed by people. I talked about how the qualities I love about myself — my attempts to be compassionate, my patience — didn’t simply arrive, that they instead were brought about by people who modeled such qualities for me, or who challenged me toward such changes in myself. After I spoke, my students shared about some of the people who have made them who they are.
It will always be a little weird to me that the way we are so often first taught to talk about books or the world or anything at all is almost entirely objective. We name qualities in a character as if they are unchanging. We name qualities about the natural world as if we are unchanged by such things. To bring the subjective into such a discourse is to acknowledge that something as fundamental to us as our loneliness — or our sense of belonging — can be shifted simply by coming into contact with something powerful enough to change us. When I think of the space between Mead’s poem that mentions the cruelty of her loneliness and Mead’s poem that insists upon her sense of belonging, I think of that. That it is possible to be changed by paying attention. To change and be changed.
I think of the opening of today’s poem:
I wonder if I will miss the moss after I fly off as much as I miss it now just thinking about leaving.
If we acknowledge that, in simply thinking about leaving the world right now, we might miss it more than we’ll miss it when we’re gone, it seems to me that Mead is pushing us to say — with our hearts and with our language — all that we love. To say it right now. To sing it. To sing it loud.
And it’s that singing that ends today’s poem, and it’s that singing that makes me a little weepy:
I think I sang some, I think I held my hand out.
It’s the singing in this last line that stays with me. It’s the welcoming. It reminds me of these lines from Galway Kinnell’s “Astonishment”:
Our time seems to be up—I think I even hear it stopping. Then why have we kept up the singing for so long?
As I write this, I have just finished up a full week of teaching. I am — as many teachers are — a little stressed and tired. I’m getting my teaching legs under me again. But when I think of this week, and when I think of what I remember, one moment is clear. It was the other day. I was walking up the stairs right before one period ended and another began. I had it in mind that I was going to make sure my materials were ready in my classroom. And then I heard it. I heard it from down the hall, half a flight up. A whole classroom was singing Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” The classroom door was closed, so it was just a faint little melody, but I heard it. When I passed the room, I opened the door, and the sound was so loud. A whole classroom singing for one of the students in it. I forgot that singing could happen. I forgot that it could happen at any time. I kept the door open. I joined in.
A Few Things (or just one):
If you are in NYC, I am reading poems tonight (along with the wonderful poet Sarah Sala, and a few comedians) at The Windjammer in Queens at 7:30. More info here.