How a Poem Kept Nelson Mandela Alive in Prison

Nelson Mandela is 95 years old today. (No surprise that he’s a Cancer!)

About a million years ago, I read an article about some older women — mostly writers and actors — and it included a sentence that made me cut the article out and paste it in my journal. It said that those women “pay the Earth the great compliment of being reluctant to leave it.” It contrasted people who burn bright and then burn out and those who figure out how to keep on giving off light and warmth for a long time.

Nelson Mandela is 95 years old today and he has been giving off light and warmth for a very long time, paying the world the great compliment of being reluctant to leave it.

We can’t all do what Nelson Mandela did. But we can all carry his example in our hearts. We can all ask ourselves, when tempted to give in to bitterness, “What would Nelson Mandela do?” One of the most amazing things about Mr. Mandela is the way that he endured decades of brutal imprisonment and still kept his love of life intact. He has said that what got him through those difficult times was the poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I’ve never had to live through anything even remotely like what Mr. Mandela endured. But the poem that has gotten me through many of my difficult times is by Mary Oliver:

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

Every summer
        I listen and look
                 under the sun’s brass and even
                         in the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything—
        not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
                 nor the leaves
                         deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
        nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
                 And still,
                         every day,

the leafy fields
        grow taller and thicker—
                 green gowns lifting up in the night,
                         showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
        I fail as a witness, seeing nothing—
                 I am deaf too
                         to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet—
        all of it
                         beyond all seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
        Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
                 Let the wind turn in the trees,
                         and the mystery hidden in dirt

swing through the air.
        How could I look at anything in this world
                 and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
                         What should I fear?

One morning
        in the leafy green ocean
                 the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
                         is sure to be there.

Is there a poem, or a song, or a dance, or something else that gets you through?

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