Jan 25 Amanda Gorman on the White House Steps — a new poet’s fresh voice for many listeners

Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, read from the steps of the White House (cf. Washington Post)

For a poetry post, “the hill we climb” runs longer than most of our offerings.   Still, as I read and listened to what she said, my conviction grew that “the hill we climb” wants to be listened to by the many people gathered on those steps, to listen and to let surprise wash over us.  Best to read the poem out loud, with pauses.

Have a blest new work week,


john sj


For the poem as presented in the Washington Post:

“On Wednesday, Joe Biden may have been inaugurated as president for the next four years, but 22-year-old Amanda Gorman crowned herself as a voice for the ages — by so emphatically reminding us of Audre Lorde’s declaration: Poetry is not a luxury.”

And what a gorgeous crown it was. The national youth poet laureate wore a bright yellow coat and a red headband atop crochet braid twists pulled into an updo, the strands adorned with mini gold cuffs — a bold move in an America where Black women and girls face discrimination over wearing their natural hair, twists or braids. Gorman’s vibrant yellow and red were also a visual nod to the 1972 campaign materials of Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman to run for president. Gorman communicated her truth and took her place within the political tradition of Black American women before even uttering a word.

Then Gorman spoke. And we listened, stunned.

Her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” opened with a question about the human condition writ large. “When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” But immediately Gorman dove deep into our America, both this troubled moment and hard moments past — into, as she said, “the belly of the beast.”

The young Harvard grad was sharing a stage with leaders multiple times her age, leaders who have steered this country into and out of disasters of monumental consequence, often in the name of American exceptionalism. Gorman spoke her commanding truth to all that power — that healing the wounds of the past should become part of the American identity. Let’s unspool the lines as she recited them:

The hill we climb

If only we dare

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

it’s the past we step into

and how we repair it

America loves to celebrate the first and the young. Here was the youngest U.S. inaugural poet in history, reciting to mark the occasion of Kamala D. Harris becoming the first female, Black and South Asian vice president, who was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court justice. In a coronavirus-stricken country starved for celebration and ritual, it felt so good to applaud Gorman and all she represented.

But she was not a luxury. The purifying power of poetry has existed as long as humans have wielded words. And for women especially, as Lorde said, poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence.” Biden’s inaugural words about unity and coming together were good and helpful and presidential. But it was Gorman’s truth that was the necessary one.

Necessary for Black women in America. In a country that so loves to profit from our political, cultural and emotional labor, Gorman reminded those of us who live at the intersection of sexism and racism that we do not have the luxury of settling for hollow #BlackWomenWillSaveUs platitudes. Not when this country is unable to save us from discrimination, police brutality or dying in childbirth.

Necessary for the young. Gorman and her generation simply cannot afford the luxury of designer political rhetoric accompanied by empty actions. Yes, America prizes youth, but older generations still ignore young people’s cries for a better future. In our moment of peril, they gaze out over an inheritance poisoned by climate change, lies, greed, bigotry and discrimination.

Necessary for all who want to see democracy endure. In an interview with CNN’S Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, Gorman said that she revised her poem in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, taking to Twitter (another medium that knows the power of brevity) to see what people were saying about the attack. “Wow, this is what happens when people don’t want to share the country with the rest of us,” she told Cooper. So she put it into her poetry: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”

Gorman is a source of pride, but her words are also a source of pain, a reminder that we — and young Americans like her in particular — still must contend with the dark, generations-old forces we told ourselves that we had defeated.

But, at the same time, her words were an elixir to a nation in critical condition, pure truth poured into an ocean of lies and division. May they help guide us to a better place.”


America ‘needed’ Amanda Gorman’s words, her teachers say. She delivered.

Jennifer Rubin: It wasn’t just the speech. There were plenty of big moments at Biden’s inauguration.

E.J. Dionne: Biden’s speech was a commitment to a new democracy

Dana Milbank: A president replaced. A nation redeemed.

Karen Attiah: AOC’s brief, poetic moment to shine — and plant a big flag

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today’s post — “Inauguration”

Has the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris emerged as a national nail-biter or a deeply surprising congeries of wonders and beauty?   I find myself staying up very late these days, wanting to open space to savor surprise after surprise – –  Amanda Corman held us in her hand as she invited us to imagine the possibility of a young poet’s capacity to move us into stillness;   President Biden’s soft-spoken invitation to us all to listen to one another as our primary source of national healing and renewal;  and the fireworks (!!!) that framed the nation’s capital;  – – sign after sign of hope, signs, too, of resilient courage in the face of the challenges we can all see.

Our Inauguration has been choreographed to bring the Capital deep into a playful wonder of body and heart and memory here on this Inauguration Thursday.  So too with today’s poet laureate Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska who introduces us to an anonymous little girl exploring gravitation: a child’s playful wonder.

When I stayed up late in and around the Capital Mall, fresh with celebration in the night, I might have been that little girl seeing how far the table-top dishes might fly.

Best to read the poem out loud, with pauses.  Have a blest Thursday.

John sj


Today’s Post “A Little Girl Tugs At The Tablecloth”

Wislawa Szymborska

She’s been in this world for over a year,

and in this world not everything’s been examined
and taken in hand.

The subject of today’s investigation
is things that don’t move themselves.

They need to be helped along,

shoved, shifted,
taken from their place and relocated.

They don’t all want to go, e,g., the bookshelf,
the cupboard, the unyielding walls, the table.

But the tablecloth on the stubborn table
– when well-seized by its hems –
manifests a willingness to travel.

And the glasses, plates,
creamer, spoons, bowl,
are fairly shaking with desire.

It’s fascinating,
what form of motion will they take,
once they’re trembling on the brink:
will they roam across the ceiling?
fly around the lamp?
hop onto the windowsill and from there to a tree?

Mr. Newton still has no say in this.
Let him look down from the heavens and wave his hands.

This experiment must be completed.
And it will.

(Translation: Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak)

Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska
(2 July 1923 – 1 February 2012)
Nobel Prize in Literature 1996



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Honoring Joe Sheehan sj (d. Nov 4, 1997)

Late during the Lenten season of 1965, the small group of “Province Consultors” met with Pedro Arrupe, (newly named the Superior General of the world wide Jesuit Order) in an O’Hare hotel meeting space to address a crisis.   The current mid-west Provincial’s ham-handed manner threatened to drive much of the younger half of the Province out, enough that a startling number of influential Jesuits wrote to Rome warning that decisive action was needed immediately.   It happened that Arrupe was making his first visit to the U.S. as Superior General.  The small group met all day.   Arrupe asked the consultors whether the situation was as dire as the 50 + letters said.  The consulters said “yes.”   Then, Arrupe asked who in the province might the younger men trust.  A consensus told him “Joe Sheehan, the current Novice Director.”  That same day Arrupe fired the provincial and named Joe, to be announced two weeks later, on Easter.

On Pine Ridge we young Jesuits were 5;  when we read the letter Easter morning, we began dancing around the dining room, laughing with wonder and joy (e.g., one of us wandered around the room in a daze saying “There is a God;  I believe it now, there is a GOD!”)

Hindsight says that Joe paid a high price to meet the crisis;  he began to call Jesuits young and old to face the province’s pervasive but little-recognized racism that had created a cultural assumption that the Rez was a penal colony for outcast Jesuits who had gotten themselves in trouble or who were perceived to be third string minds.   After his tumultuous 6 year term and many battles, Joe took a sabbatical and then asked to return to the Rez, for the rest of his life it turned out.   His hospitality to Lakota men and women and children became legendary.  When he died (cancer, I think), he was buried in the cemetery of Manderson village.   During my sabbatical month last September, my soul friend Mary Tobacco and I drove the c. 40 miles to visit not only Joe’s grave, but also Mary’s legendary ancestor Standing Bear and Black Elk, life-long close friends.   Black Elk became world famous as a wicasa wakan who John Neihardt interviewed over a long time and published the still-contemporary book Black Elk Speaks.   In recent decades, anthropologist Michael Steltenkamp, sj published a second account, this time by Lucy Black Elk, about her grandfather, Black Elk, who also served as Catholic pastor in Manderson District for c. 40 years.  While Mary and I stood still there for a while, a meadowlark began to sing, somewhere close to Joe’s grave:  “Maybe that’s Fr. Sheehan welcoming us,” said Mary.

I love the accident of this early January calendar reminding me of how much I and very many other people owe to Joe’s understated courage and his revolutionary recognition that the racist wounds on Pine Ridge called for a conversion into deep cross-cultural mutual hospitality – standing in that cemetery, near a caucasian priest, a Lakota holy man, and a war leader listening to the meadowlark as a sacred voice telling us that we were all welcome there that morning.

John G. Neihardt (from left), Nicholas Black Elk and Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux
meet during an interview session for “Black Elk Speaks” in Manderson, S.D., in May 1933.
(Photo by Enid Neihardt; Courtesy of The Neihardt Trust)

Joe Sheehan, sj
Died November 4, 1997

Best to read Mary Oliver out loud, with pauses.  She makes good company for troubled times like the present and would not be surprised by this remembrance of Joe Sheehan, sj, Black Elk, and Standing Bear and the prairie Manderson cemetery where their bodies have come to rest near one another.

Thursday afternoon, alive with crisp autumn air.  Have a blest day.


john sj


Today’s Post “The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

Mary Oliver
September 10, 1935


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Modern Day Warriors

Our first post of this season is not really a poem but it gives the reader a sense of the bravery and organizational ability of Mary Tobacco and her work crew trying to create livable places for very poor people on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Have a blest day,

John st sj


“Modern Day Warriors” is how my niece Joni described the Wakpamni District Construction Crew.  I have to agree.  In addition to the technical team (e.g., Security, Office Staff) Pine Ridge is alive with work teams bearing legendary names – – Black Elk, Catches, Hard Heart, Lakota, Little Hawk, Red Cloud, Returns from Scout, Running Hawk, Standing Bear, Tobacco, Two Lance, Wounded, Yellow Hair, Young Man (Afraid of His Horses);  look up their ancestry.  They are descendants of warriors, who, like their ancestors, take great risks each day on a battlefield with an invisible and dangerous enemy that has already taken so many beautiful lives.  They work to protect the most vulnerable by repairing homes and lives.

Some houses are so damaged that they should be demolished, but they house our elders, our children, our most vulnerable (“unsiga”), and there is nowhere else to go.  The sacred people who live in them find a way, under falling ceilings, using failed sewer systems, breathing toxic air, relying on makeshift heating and cooling, sometimes without safe water.   Others sleep in their cars or at their relatives; more wander from place to place.  The WD Construction Crew are taking up hammers, saws, drill guns to transform these spaces up to safe livable homes.  Some are irreparable so the WD Construction Crew has taken up the call to build homes as well.

Other warriors within the WD crews provide services like food delivery, cleaning, security, answer calls to provide help for those who are sick and trying to remain healthy.

Warriors can be seen throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation during this pandemic.  Look around Pine Ridge and see the women and men working to provide safer, cleaner spaces – restoring buildings that have been empty for the most part.

If you get a chance stop and ask them their names and thank them.

I’m proud of our crews and grateful for them everyday.

Mary Tobacco, President
Wakpamni District

                     Wakpamni Work Crew


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Dec 24 – Christmas Eve, 1946, Marinette Wisconsin

This photo was taken, probably by my Dad, in 1946.  Dr. Redeman, a family friend, was Santa. He visited the homes of parents with children on Christmas Eve in our small town. Three of us four children sit in little chairs, adults behind us, waiting for Santa’s silver chimes outside our front door. Midge, the baby, sits on Mom’s lap on the left. Santa came in and took his black book out of its pouch. He read to us from the gospel of Luke and talked with us about the coming of Jesus into the world. The photo captures our stillness, our attention fixed on this mysterious person. How did Dr. Redemon move us to stillness? Perhaps by the depth of his voice, and its cadence; perhaps by the way he moved, a solemn dancer, with no sign of hurry as he and his Eskimo partner took presents out of large cloth bags, read our names, and placed each one under the tree.

Whoever took the picture captured my attention. The lighting takes me first to Santa’s face and beard and to his hand raised in a good-bye blessing; his poise, mid gesture, makes the entire photo hold its breath. The children show how focused we felt that night, absorbed with wonder. Dr. R taught us that sacred mystery is storytelling with no hint of hurrying. All my life since, the pace of my life helps me recognize when I have found the grace to pay attention and not to interrupt.

All of us are better when our life’s pace makes us as still as the children in this 1946 photo. Writing about a moment from childhood makes me grateful for the “Work Day/Hard Times” poetry list. When I write, imagining all of you who read fills me with gratitude and wonder.


john st sj

p.s. It turns out my home-town paper ran a short article, by Larry Ebsch, about Dr.  Redeman, seen above in the 1943 photo.  Here are a couple of quotes:

“While all Santa’s are special, Dr. Redeman, a dentist, was the star Santa of his era who was honored by the community with a special tribute in 1952 with a party attended by 210 people at Riverside Country Club.  . . .  His love affair with the Christmas season began in the Northern Marinette County community of Amberg while visiting children of relatives and friends in his Santa Claus suit.  He expanded his performance in 1937 with visits to 41 families dressed in a special fur trimmed costume. . .  announcing his coming by ringing bells . . . the colorful yard decorations attracted national attention during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s.”

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Dec 23 – “O Emmanuel” the 7th and final O Antiphon

Wednesday, December 23  —   “my little heart loses its limits in joy”

Advent ends today: three plus weeks of prophecy daring us to see the world as beautiful and beloved.   That dare can shake us when Advent’s antiphons compete with frightened and angry language as they surely do this year of economic crisis and fear of disease.   Let’s match the 7th O Antiphon from a thousand years ago with the first prayer-poem in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali,  a song of praise from the first decades of the 20th century.    Please consider them both as an offering to each of this list’s c. 2700 readers.   Best to read out loud with pauses.

Blessings during these holy days.   One more post tomorrow on what Christians call “Christmas Eve.”


john sj

p.s.       Tagore died in the city of his birth, Calcutta, in 1941.  He vastly influenced poetry, sacred and secular, not only in India but around the world.  He is the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.  If you buy Gitanjali, a book of 100 short sacred poems, prepare yourself to only read one poem at a time so you can sit with it.  Here is # 1.   These poems have no titles, only numbers.


Today’s post –  Gitanjali # 1

Thou hast made me endless,  such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart
loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass, and still thou pourest,
and still there is room to fill.

The 7th O Antiphon,  “O Emmanuel”

O Emmanuel!  ruler  and giver of our laws,
Hope of the people from across the whole world,
Come to save us
O Lord our God.

To listen to the Antiphon sung in Gregorian Chant


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Dec 22 – 6th Antiphon O Rex Gentium – O King of the Nations

Tuesday, December 22

Tuesday before Christmas

O Antiphon #6   O Rex Gentium – O King of the Nations

O King of all nations and keystone of the world:
come and save us, whom you formed from the dust!


Today’s Post:  “O King of the Nations”

To listen to the Antiphon sung in Gregorian Chant -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwDdEQCtIF4


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Dec 21 – Solstice 5th O Antiphon

Dec 21 shortest daylight = solstice

Saturday, December 21  –  O Oriens

At Detroit’s latitude, we will have 9 hours and 3 minutes of daylight, 14 hours and 57 minutes of night time. Our shortest day. Today’s O Antiphon, “O Oriens” (“O Rising Sun”) tells us that the long-ago writers of these sung-blessings for Advent’s last days lived in the northern hemisphere. Deeper & deeper into the days of diminishing light they sing to human longing for liberation and dawn. Tomorrow the day will be 3 minutes longer (I think that’s accurate), the dawn of the majestic march of sunrise back from it’s southern-most point of Oriens.

“O Dayspring
splendour of light and sun of justice:
Come and bring light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

These days are full of tenderness, of giving and hospitality, of forgiving old wounds, of allowing someone to forgive and welcome me when our connection had been wounded. Days, too, of longing for the healing of the world’s wounds, days of taking our places in the fatigue and longings of the whole human family.  Daring days of courage. “O Oriens” is quite a prayer.

Have a good day,

john sj

Dec 21 – 5th Antiphon O Oriens – O Dayspring

Today’s Post: “O Dayspring”
To listen to the Antiphon sung in Gregorian Chant

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Sunday, December 20 4th Sunday of Advent

Today’s Post:  O Antiphon #4   O Clavis David – O Key of David

“O Key of David,
and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one closes,
you close and no one opens

Come and lead us who sit bound with chains in the prison house,
sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.”

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Sunday, December 20, 4th Sunday of Advent

Today’s Post:  O Antiphon #4   O Clavis David – O Key of David

“O Key of David,
and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one closes,
you close and no one opens

Come and lead us who sit bound with chains in the prison house,
sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.”

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