“relax” with ellen bass

We try so hard. Really we do. But Murphy’s Law usually prevails.

by Ellen Bass

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat —
the one you never really liked — will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up — drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice — one white, one black — scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

~ from Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)

by Liu Jiyou (1918-1983)



How to reach for that strawberry, and keep the tiger of dread and misfortune at bay?

As Gilda Radner used to say, “There’s always something.” We fret, worry, stress — and what we dreaded so much doesn’t come to pass — something else happens instead. Something we didn’t anticipate, couldn’t possibly prepare for, something totally out of our control. You know, the inevitable, the unavoidable. We are misfortune’s fool.

The Buddhist story Bass cites offers some interesting food for thought. Does the tiger who chased the woman off the cliff represent the past, while the tiger lurking below, the future? Do the black and white mice (yin/yang?) symbolize time? Caught in the middle, knowing she’s going to die, the woman ceases to dwell on the past or worry about her fate. She simply seizes the only moment she has, the present — and it’s sweeter beyond belief.


via All the Beautiful Things


Learning to relax, living in the moment, and trying to be a lot more ZEN about life in general is an ongoing challenge for most of us. What a good reminder to embrace the gifts that are before us and express gratitude, especially when things are difficult.

And things in this country ARE difficult. What place does poetry have in enabling us to cope?

In a 2014 NYT Artsbeat interview, Bass said:

Poetry is always grappling with the question: how do we go on? And one way is to find beauty — and humor — in the humblest, most unexpected places. And to praise this gorgeous, tender, terrifying life that is ours for just a second or two.

We’re all dangling from that vine. The strawberries are there for the taking.


Philadelphia-born Ellen Bass co-edited (with Florence Howe) the first major anthology of women’s poetry: No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (1973). Her recent collections include The Human Line (2007), Like a Beggar (2014), and Mules of Love (2002), a Lambda Literary Award-winner. An advocate for women survivors of child sexual abuse, Bass dedicated years of service to the cause and became a pioneer in the field of supporting the healing process through words, starting with the book (coedited with Louise Thornton) I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1983). This was followed by The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988), coauthored with Laura Davis, and translated into twelve languages. Ellen is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and currently teaches in the low residency MFA program at Pacific University. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA, where she has taught writing and poetry workshops since 1974.


The shockingly clever but not so shockingly talented and beautiful Karen Edmisten is hosting the Roundup this week. Be sure to sashay on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere. Have a relaxing weekend! 🙂

Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

35 thoughts on ““relax” with ellen bass

  1. Oh, my gosh….this is probably the wrong reaction to the poem….but I laughed at the truth of it. Yes, bad things WILL happen. Bad things have happened and I am the same kid I was decades ago trying to figure it out. But, I always hope to be reaching for the strawberry. A wonderful post, Jama! I think I need this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not the wrong reaction at all — as the poet says, it’s important to find beauty and HUMOR in the most unexpected places. Sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying . . . 🙂


  2. Waited all the very long winter to garden, do yard work, and all those other wonderful outdoor things … last week, broke my wrist, my RIGHT wrist … have a line of clients waiting for me to edit their novels … oh, this post and this poem were most timely and wise! I am going strawberry picking, even if I have to use my left hand!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I find strawberries in many places among the weeds, love knowing that someone wrote this marvelous life poem for a “day like any other day”! I love that you included Gilda Radner’s words, do think of them now & then. Thanks for a beautiful share, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You do strike me as someone who can always find strawberries amongst the weeds, Linda. Gilda’s words will continue to ring true — I pretty much think of them every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have always loved strawberries and I needed to be reminded to live in the moment. Thank you for introducing me to Bass.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This poem is new to me. Thank you so much for sharing it. I try to reach for the strawberries, but some days all I can see are those tigers! This post is a keeper!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So true. We have to be reminded to live in the moment, and appreciate the strawberries in our lives. When I read the poem, I couldn’t help but think of another fruit, the lemon. As they say, If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I guess there is always something sweet to mix in with the sour. We have to accept the sour with the sweet, and embrace them both. Now I will step off my soapbox, and just say that poem really spoke to me. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This poem kind of made me choke up and laugh at the same time.
    “Wellll, there’s this strawberry… and crud is going to happen anyway, so… eat up.”
    This has been that kind of week where this poem is necessary. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love this poem! I also chuckled at some of the horrible things that happened no matter how prepared we might think we are. Life is like that. Now if I could just remember to reach for and savor that luscious strawberry!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh, my! I almost couldn’t finish reading the list of disasters–but I’m glad I did! Yes, these are difficult, challenging times. I love the quote about poetry’s role in “grappling with the question.” Looks like another must-read book. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Marvelous, Jama! We can’t ignore the strawberries. Ellen Bass’ “The Thing Is” is one of my favorite “hard times” poems. She is so good with that.

    Liked by 2 people

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