Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Flashback: Form and Substance: How a Sonnet Saved My Life

[While I am working on another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This post originally appeared on August 22, 2011.]

The Sonnet

The sonnet is the most restrictive of
Poetic forms. A scheme is strictly set
Dictating poet's rhyme and rhythm, yet
He chooses it for lofty thoughts of love,
Admiring noble deeds, or saintly stuff.
Indeed, the sonnet always seems to let
Transcendence have its way so as to get
A sense of freedom. Thus we see it prove
To be the highest, freest form to whet
A true Poetic. Often when I see
The bounds within which I must find my way,
(The cold collective spreads its mindless net
And freedom seems to fade) I wish to be
A living sonnet soaring through the day.

CLK                                       2/82

The sonnet, like so many aspects of society, provides rules, structure and boundaries. We can find comfort in those boundaries we see in society. Boundaries give definition to what is expected and provide security in our roles. On the other hand, boundaries can be restricting and oppressive. We have common metaphors that speak to this paradox: “keep your hand on the plow,” “stay on track” are just as familiar as “he was chomping at the bit,” or “pulling at the traces.” Boundaries indeed offer guidance, but sometimes one must slip the traces or jump the tracks. I recently read some words from Spanish poet Antonio Machado which speak poignantly and profoundly about how we make our own way to find our true path in life:

Why should we call
these accidental furrows roads?
Everyone who moves on
walks like Jesus, on the sea. [1]

The sonnet above is one that I wrote when I was 28 years old. I offer it as an example of how one can be awakened by one’s own poem. At the time, I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College on a two-year assignment with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. I had graduated from seminary and had plans to go into ministry upon return to the States. During my first year back in the U.S., I was in the middle of a chaplaincy training program at Montclair Baptist Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. One evening I was re-reading the sonnet that I had written two years before. For some reason, I imagined myself as a 68-year-old man and a young man was reading the sonnet. The young man asked me if I ever learned how to be a living sonnet. The only honest answer I could give in that imaginary situation was, “No. I never did.”

It was at that moment that I realized I needed to get out from where I was at the time. Toward the end of my chaplaincy training, I was offered the opportunity to apply for an opening in the chaplain residency program at the hospital. To the director’s surprise, I never applied for the position.

Finding New Directions

“Where will you go from here?” the Pastoral Care director asked. I had no clear answer, except that I knew I had to go away from where I was at that moment. The next year proved to be a formative year. I left the Baptists and found St. Andrew's Episcopal Church where there was a commitment to high liturgy and social service. While there, I found employment at St. Andrew’s Foundation working with adults with developmental disabilities in group home settings. The overarching ideal at St. Andrew’s Foundation was “normalization,” meaning that we would allow each person to live as normal a life as possible, with normal routines rather than being defined by their disability.

St. Andrew's Church
The home where I worked was a couple of blocks away from St. Andrew’s Church.  In those days, the bell in the church steeple would sound out the hours. The liturgical hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) were designated times of prayer throughout the day. This was a form that I was unaccustomed to, having grown up Baptist. While I worked with clients at the group home, even though those liturgical hours were unfamiliar, it was meaningful to hear the bells sound during the day. It reminded me to stop, if only briefly, to acknowledge that I was working within a larger context of meaning.

Even more than the liturgical hours in the background, the group home residents themselves gave my life a centering. More than teaching and certainly more than professional ministry, my work now seemed like real life. Teaching and ministry are both wonderful and needed professions, but my own strengths and abilities did not fully align with the tasks in either milieu. I was therefore not finding life within those structures.  At St. Andrew’s Foundation I sat on front porches and in living rooms of those group homes visiting and talking with residents who were limited in many ways, but they helped me to see more clearly what real life is about. All manner of assumptions were dispelled during those days. We were all learning each day how to better find our way in the world. They needed help with shopping, banking, household management, job training, and managing the conflict that arises just by living with other people. They were learning to have a home of their own, and I felt like I was finally home.

I would later recount, "It was at St. Andrew's that I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings." [2]
Nothing is constant, however. After several years of rewarding work at St. Andrew’s Foundation, I was also starting a family and needing to broaden my possibilities. To that end, I went back to my old alma mater for a degree in Nursing. My first job in the Nursing field was as a psychiatric nurse at the same hospital where I had once been a chaplain. I remember walking across the hospital grounds one evening, recalling how I had made that same walk years before as a chaplain. Back then I was thinking, “I don’t belong here.” That night, however, as I walked the grounds as a nurse, I said to myself, “This is exactly where I belong!”

Writing New Avenues and Looking Inward

I continue to make a living in healthcare, and I also continue to write. The point of sharing my sonnet is to show how the process of writing can help us to know who we really are, at least that has been true for me. My writing has taken the form of daily journals, personal letters, dream journals, essays, and poetry. The poetry that I have written over the years often has served as a kind of spiritual diary, recording where I was, what I was thinking, and how I was feeling at the time. Sometimes the writing surprises me by opening up new windows and new avenues. Sometimes the writing, as with this sonnet, helps me to see a bit more clearly how to live more congruently with my inner self and ideals.

For all who have an interest in writing, I say, by all means write! Don’t worry about whether it is “good enough.” That sonnet that I wrote all those years ago is certainly no Shakespeare or Dante, but it contained a true observation that allowed me to take a probing look within myself. Make sure that what you write is your true voice. You will probably learn more about yourself, and the writing might even save your life.

                                                                                                               Charles Kinnaird


1.  From I Never Wanted Fame, by Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly), Ally Press (limited edition) 1979.
2. From "An Ordinary Life" at

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