Let me copy out Anne Sexton’s poem Courage, for both its bravura and its pain. She was born in the city my ancestors came to as mill workers in the 1850s. She lived, she struggled. She soldiered on as we all do.
I remember the day the news broke that she had taken her own life; in my teaching years it was. The head of the English Department opened my classroom door and told me. I was young but I knew who she was, I knew. And her poems thrilled and frightened me.
I am not young now but they thrill and frighten me still. The slippers in the closing lines alone!! Not the self-killing but oh for that bold stepping forth…
Anyway It goes like this.
It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
comver your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.