When a friend tells me they’re questioning every decision they’ve ever made and that they’re tumbling down an existential rabbit hole, rather than offer practical advice, I send them this poem. Generally, it seems to help.
(written aged 30)
For mum and your advice:
‘I love you to the moon and back, Hollie
But you are no more important than a tree’
when it all seems too much
and i wonder why we’re here
and i think about the sun
and i wonder why it’s there
and my daughter points to space
and the emptiness upsets me
and i lament my lack of god
and i wish that one would find me
and i worry what is out there
and i wonder what the point is
and i panic about death
and i panic it’s all pointless
and i wonder when space stops
and what the fuck we’re on this rock for
i think of strawberries in summer
firmed and ripe and juicy
and how perfectly dandelion seeds
are made to helicopter breezes
procreating across fields
and i remind myself
this is not all about you, hollie
Now that you’ve read it, read it again, but this time out loud. One of the wonderful things about this poem is its use of pace – the single long stanza with no pauses leaves us constantly speeding up and running out of breath. It’s a very physical representation of what that experience of spiralling is. The dizzying moment when your thoughts escape your control and you’re left frantically trying to catch up. The reality is that this stanza could go on forever with one tricky topic feeding into another; just as McNish jumps from the sun to space to death to the meaning of life, we may all be familiar with the leap from one essay to exams to career worries to the future to climate change.
However, McNish chooses to halt the spiral by ending the stanza and creating a large pause within which to catch your breath. The now slowing pace and focus on small, joyful things begins to recentre the reader. It creates the image of a peaceful summer day, in contrast to the chaos of moments before. In doing so, she prompts us to consider what is really important in our lives. It’s a question many of us have been forced to confront throughout the various Lockdowns and restrictions of the Pandemic, and many of us have found similar answers – the smell of coffee beans, a funny show, a friend’s hug.
Without forcing you to turn away and vomit in disgust at its overuse, what we’re really talking about is mindfulness. It’s an important lesson as we begin to enter autumn and winter, where short days and dark nights can leave us feeling downtrodden.
The final stanza is only two lines. It continues the slow de-escalation of pace to reach the simple conclusion ‘this is not all about you’. This, I think, is McNish’s real talent: to create poetry that is so accessible, while also creating a deep sense of connection and often tackling large and complicated issues. This final sentence is both matter-of-fact and a little philosophical. In our tendency to seek answers to deeper questions and to believe (somewhat egotistically) that there is bigger meaning to our lives, we create our own suffering when we fail to find an answer. McNish prompts us to take a less self-centred approach as an act of kindness to ourselves.
As I move through life, I find myself regularly returning to the words of this poem as a source of comfort. From it, I have adopted the short sentence: It is enough in life to simply be happy. When we find ourselves in the chaos of university, jobs, family or friendships, it can be a powerful phrase to remember.
Hollie McNish can be found on Instagram @Holliepoetry where you can read some of her other work and find links to her books. ‘DANDELIONS’ is published in her book ‘Plum’
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons