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Illustration: Polly Crossman


A poem about working out what we really want from life

The Art Of Disappearing by Naomi Shihab Nye shows us the importance of taking time away

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By Ella Risbridger on

There’s this thing that people do to you after something horrible has happened. It’s basically harmless. It’s meant with all the love and sympathy in the world. And I’ve come halfway across the globe to a city where I know three people, because if it happens to me one more time I’m going to scream.

I want to say right now: you have done this thing. I have also done this thing, and I suspect I still do if blindsided by somebody else’s tragedy. I don’t actually know what I’d rather people did, anyway. It is a totally normal, kind, human impulse, and it’s not you, it’s me: rather, it’s the sheer number of times it happens. I think it’s the universal sign of “I know something awful happened in your life, and I care very much, but also don’t want to allude to it too bluntly, in case you’ve forgotten.”

It’s this: you cock your head on one side, open your eyes sincerely wide, take a pause, and say “How are you?” I know. It doesn’t sound like much. But here’s the problem: it happens to you every single time you speak to anyone. Every conversation you’re in inevitably turns to (if it doesn’t begin with) the Head-tilt. Friends of friends give you the Head-tilt. People you didn’t think you even knew give you the Head-tilt. Everyone gives you the Head-tilt.

You realise, suddenly, that the awful thing has become your defining feature; you’re the girl with the unbelievably unlucky boyfriend. You’re that girl. That’s your whole thing.

The weird part about this for me, of course, is that the truly, truly awful trauma in my life is not really my trauma at all. It’s John’s: the rest of us just live here. My thing is someone else’s sicknesses, and even if you love that someone else very much, it’s a strange feeling. Who does it make me, if who I am is based on someone else? Anyway, it adds up – over two years – to be quite a lot of sympathetic Head-tilt.

It’s partly because of the Head-tilt that I’ve sort of disappeared. Boxed up my stuff, found my passport, and left without really saying very much about it to anyone.

And all this is a really long way round to say: if you’ve ever felt like disappearing because you aren’t sure who you are any more, welcome to the club, my friend.

Another week, another poem, another Art, and this time it’s The Art Of Disappearing by Naomi Shihab Nye. You can read it here. Last week, we learned to lose things. This week, it’s ourselves, but in a good way: you’re not disappearing forever, just till you work things out enough to decide what to do with your time.

Somebody sent me this poem when I first announced this column, and I loved it so much I printed it out and folded it up in my handbag. I’m not saying this poem is responsible for my own personal vanishing act, but I’m not not saying that either. Sometimes a poem gets you at just the right time to make a difference. Maybe you need this poem like I did.

Like last week’s poem, it’s got this instructional vibe to it; it’s a series of commands that you can’t help at least considering when you read them. When they invite you to the party/remember what parties are like/before answering.

I mean: whatever you think of poetry, per se, this is very good advice! Someone telling you in a loud voice/they once wrote a poem./Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate. Oh man, you have been to those parties. So have I. You can practically see the slick yellow ring forming on the paper under the sausage meat. Don’t go to those parties. Or at least, not right now- think about it, and then decide what to do with your time. That’s what I love about this poem: it’s kind of like a series of instructions for what you do before you make a decision.

It’s about vanishing so that you can be more than the things that happened to you. It’s about being more than the Head-tilt

It’s not telling you what to do with your life, but it’s telling you how to work out what you want to do with your life. It’s telling you how to begin.Who am I without the Head-tilt? Who am I if John isn’t the centre and sum total of my universe any more? Who am I when I’m not in relation to John, and especially John’s sicknesses? I have absolutely no idea, but out here in the desert, I’m starting to find out.

No, not “find out”. Not exactly. There’s this line in the middle of Shihab Nye’s poem that I’ve been playing on a loop in my head since I got here:

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore / You’re trying to remember something / too important to forget.

I thought I was coming out here to write a book. (Tell them you have a new project/ It will never be finished...) / Turns out, I came out here to try and remember who I am.

This poem is instructions for being a hermit, really, in the proper, old-school, Bible sense: for pulling yourself out of the world so you can properly work out what you’re actually doing with your life. There used to be people, hundreds of years ago, who had themselves walled up inside churches, or abandoned on pillars in the desert. Nobody spoke to them. They did this on purpose, to think more clearly about their purpose.

Well: they wanted to think about God, but when you get right down to it (even for very religious people) thinking about God is mostly comes down to thinking about your own purpose, and what you ought to be doing with your time.

Monks still do it. (The monastery bell at twilight…) Nuns still do it. Beyonce, the 21st century’s answer to Julian of Norwich (my own personal favourite hermit), “fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word”. It’s about emptying your mind of everything else so you can see who you really are. It’s about vanishing so that you can be more than the things that happened to you. It’s about being more than the Head-tilt.  It’s about taking a step back being not only okay, but necessary.

I suppose that’s why this poem feels kind of like a haiku, or an off-kilter, Black Books-esque, version of a zen koan: “nod briefly and become a cabbage.” It doesn’t rhyme like last week’s poem, but it has this feeling to it like you ought to remember it anyway: work out who you are first, remember that life is precarious and strange and lovely, and then decide what you need to do with your time.


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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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My life in poems

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