Poetry, Donuts, and the Meaning of Life


This time of year in the Pacific Northwest, a day of warm, clear weather might yield to yet another week of gray and drizzly skies—a mirroring of the unpredictable ups and downs of life. How are we to make sense of the seemingly senseless pattern of highs and lows? How do we make meaning from that which seems so chaotic? Here, Becky Allender explores these questions in the context of poetry, donuts, and painful conversations. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
Is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
To find out what it really means.

–Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”

Life often feels like slipping on a banana peel. I have never slipped on a banana peel, but I know it is a trope used in Charlie Chaplin and Three Stooges films. My life doesn’t feel like a physical comedy, but I keep stumbling over meaning. One event slips away and another appears. It is not meaningless, yet I often can’t hold on to what I am to make of a moment, let alone my life.

Recently a graduate student came by to lead us in a two-hour exercise in poetry. My husband and I sat with her in a sun-filled room looking out at three of our newly pruned Japanese maples as we wrote the words that would springboard our minds in crafting our poems.

I often can’t hold on to what I am to make of a moment, let alone my life.

My husband and I took off on a journey of imagery that glided through galaxies and water, in and out of the landscapes burnished by time. We beamed as we read our newly birthed poems. I wondered why, after over four decades of marriage, we had never crafted poems together.

Soon after, I talked with a dear friend whose brother-in-law had a stroke. On his 41st wedding anniversary, he was wearing Depends in the hallway of a nursing facility. The contrast of our different worlds tore a hole in my heart. I could barely breathe with the discontinuous madness.

The next morning, my husband and I met with our lawyer to update our will. Leaving the office, I was aware of feeling overwhelmed. The gravity of the death of one of us bore down like a hazy pressure chamber, and I longed to get home in our bed and use my inhalers.

Instead, we dropped off belongings at the Goodwill and found ourselves in our favorite grocery store, stocking up for who-knows-what. Dan chose three donuts for us to share and I told him I didn’t need to look at them, as I always trust his donut choices. To my consternation, there was not a single donut I had hoped for. Trying to be kind, I took a bite of each one and felt aghast that he had failed to buy a single glazed raised donut.

What does this mean? Has my husband lost his ability to choose the donuts I want, or have I entered a space of hopelessness illuminated by poorly chosen donuts? Is this swirling confusion real or just a result of too much activity and not enough rest? I feel confused by what a good day is comprised of and how I’ll ever make it to my dying day intact.

Questions about meaning seldom, if ever, move to clarity. The disparately yoked connections between one event and the next expose that no one but God sees how the sinews of meaning hold together the fragility of life.

I often want to tie God to a chair and beat Him until I find out what it all really means.

If I stop asking the questions, I relinquish my childlike awe and curiosity. If I settle for slick panaceas, then I surrender the thoughtful part of me that knows no simple answer is enough.

I also know that the question of meaning is more than the journey. It is more than letting a mouse probe the mysteries of a poem. After eating a piece of the third donut, I realized we are both alone in the wash of anticipating death and indulging in sugar to escape what we can’t name.

One moment I am creating the inner world of a poem; the next moment imagining a friend in an adult diaper. This can’t be explained; it can’t be given meaning. It can prompt my heart to look into the face of God to ask not why, but who? Not what is the meaning of this, but far more, who is the meaning that holds the chaotic shards of life together?