I love reading William Stafford, the plain-spoken but so evocative chronicler of the daily and the extraordinary. In fact, I think of two of his poems as bookmarks in my own story as a nurse. I first read “Strokes” back in the 1960s. I clearly remember being on a bus, crossing the Oakland-Bay Bridge from my apartment in Berkeley to my classes at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. The first line was, for me, an early epiphany about the nature of illness:
The left side of her world is gone—
the rest sustained by memory
and a realization: There are still the children.
At 22, I’d acquired the technical skills I needed to nurse a stroke patient but had little sense of what life was like after the victim left my care. A powerful and startling revelation.
I came upon “The Way It Is” somewhere around 2000, when my career path had taken many a turn and brought me out of clinical practice into the realm of writing and medical humanities:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread…
The phenomena that illuminate our lives are many and various—advice from a mentor, a seminal event, a memorable dream and so on. For me, poems also serve this purpose. The poets who make them help me distill meaning from experience and sharpen my vision of the world I inhabit and what may lie beyond it.