Ordinary Suffering/ Suffering Is Ordinary

Last week I was writing about suffering. I have been writing about suffering for years (because that’s a fun way to fill a notebook, right?) but this year I churn when I sit to write about suffering, with impatience to reach conclusion about what I see in the world, what I see in dear friends’ lives, what I feel in my body and mind. When considering others’ losses, I wonder if my own suffering is selfish. Does God care to comfort me when I am sad for nothing much, compared?

A few weeks ago, after a family suffered the death of their baby girl, my friend Sabrina listened to my very wandering thoughts about everything and said to think about what I am learning from the people in my life who suffer much. This circle of suffering friends includes Sabrina, in her first year of widowhood, her first year of single parenting. So last week when I was writing about suffering and a colleague asked what I was working on, I told him and he quoted an Auden poem – “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood” – which I looked up. Which sent me to Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.” I read the poem, looked at the painting and found a way in.

The Fall Of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Ordinary Suffering/
A Response To “Musee des Beaux Arts”
Sarah Marslender

I was on the way to the airport to fly to Australia
when my grandfather died in Wisconsin,
but I read the news at the gate, leaned against
my husband. I thought, Grandpa knows everything/
I was at my work study when a plane flew into
the World Trade Center – we turned the radio on,
we thought it was impossible but true, returned
to our work/ Two weeks ago, I was walking down
a school hall when I checked my messages to
learn a friend’s baby died. With the time
difference between here and there, I couldn’t
remember what I was doing when this baby girl
left all of this world

I think about that – what I am doing when a
plane explodes in the air, or barrel bombs rain,
or the earth shakes foundations, slips mud, eats
half a mountainside town. I think about where I
am when, as if it matters at all

to join the suffering. We do not all turn away
from the boy who falls from sky. The fisherman
with his slender rod, the hawk on its slender branch,
the shepherd staring at sky – we do not all turn
away from ordinary suffering but you cannot
see our heads turn, our feet move before we
think, or how we lay that night seeing it again,
you cannot see what paint dried

Ordinary suffering/ suffering is ordinary, not
less than/ greater than, only part of being here
where people may fall from sky, or wake with a
mouthful of mud, or witness the brightest/ most
excruciating light before dark, or walk the next
day with empty hands


Next week, if enough of my colleagues sign up to attend, I’ll run a short poetry writing workshop. I’ve missed writing poetry this year – one of the functions of teaching a poetry unit to creative writers is actually writing a ton of poetry. Those six years reading and writing poetry alongside students stretched my usual practice. Poetry shakes loose writing inhibitions. But after years of writing poetry, you really must take Raymond Carver’s advice and make use of the things around you.

This week, that is tattoos. I half listened in on a conversation between colleagues about tattoos they have, tattoos they want, tattoo artists here in Seoul, plans to go, maybe, and at the end of the conversation, perhaps sensing my eavesdropping, Daniel turned to me and asked did I want to get a tattoo. I said I’ve been thinking about my tattoo for twenty years. So.

I’ve Thought About My Tattoo For Twenty Years

One summer I sat next to a boy at church camp,
saw GRACE tattooed in black letters on the inside
of his forearm – this tenet of faith extended to
him to extend to others. I asked did he have any
other tattoos? He said yeah, they were where
he couldn’t show me and others at the lunch table
laughed while I blushed. He patted my shoulder,
said he was only joking

That summer I thought about the tattoo I might
get, a tiny Christian fish on my foot, walking the
gospel, or maybe a winged fleet foot at the ball
of my ankle because I was running and running
and one day going to run very, very far

In college I saw enough tattoo regrets to stick
to piercings. Bleeding ink, misshapen faces,
calligraphed anything, kanji you can only hope
reads hope, thick useless bands around biceps,
nosegays, suns, stars and compasses, an animal
kingdom of cartoons, four leaf clovers and realistic
wolves. I stumbled the gospel more than walked,
relieved I wasn’t also advertising my failure

When I returned to amazing grace I remembered
GRACE, turned my wrist over to imagine grace the
color of a freckle on delicate skin. Or a thin line like
pencil lead sketching the Holy Spirit dove in one line

After a long winter I wanted a piece of green
somewhere on my body, and in Colombia I saw the
many shapes leaves take in a climate of perpetual
spring, perpetual fall – but I did not make myself
a forest. I thought to dash watercolor at my right
collarbone. I thought to tattoo a favorite piece of
punctuation, the –

Or I might use my flesh to write what is written
on my heart, words of life I reread, memorize in
shorthand: rejoice, give thanks, pray/ belong to
the day/ in everything/ workmanship/ faith, hope,
love/ unstained/ draw near/ pleasant places. Each
year or season collects phrases I whisper, pray –
these are for my whole life and for the moment in
front of me. My body would be covered in affirming,
uncomfortable, confrontational scripture to complicate
or clarify my living any of this

Finally I think of white ink. Draw the borders of each
country I have lived, draw the borders one over
another so the thin lines entwine, knot

The marks on my body are not inked. I have freckles
the color of freckles. I have a birthmark like a brushstroke.
I have stretch marks at my hips, like wavery white ink,
and age draws fuschia squiggles on my thighs. I am a
body marked, but –