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Supportive Scaffold

January, 2021

Calico Cat Winking

Navigating Through Sorrow

If I could get a virtual show of hands, I’d ask who here in this blogosphere knows Mary Oliver’s brilliant poem, “Wild Geese?

Is your hand raised? Hope so!

If you’ve never read Oliver’s poem, or if poetry is a big fat turnoff to you, let me just offer this iconic first line:

“You do not have to be good.”

This first line of “Wild Geese” is a great antidote when battling an inner critic that wants to diminish joy by pointing out something about us that falls short of “good.” Reading Mary Oliver’s first seven words (and often the rest of the poem), I usually breathe a lot easier. Oliver’s beautifully crafted lines fade the critic’s voice.

As 2021 begins, I share what seems a universal gratitude for the end of 2020. However, no matter what day, month or year it is, an awful lot of people are grieving. So many have lost a loved one to COVID, senseless acts of violence, other serious illnesses, overdoses or suicide.

I keep wondering: When will we grieve? It’s not a fun thing to do but it is a necessity. Friends and relatives are mourning private, personal losses but we, as a nation, and as part of a global community, have much to make us weep.

Since “Wild Geese” has been such a reliable source of solace, I decided to “scaffold” it as an offering especially for those who are in acute stages of bereavement.

I learned about writing scaffold poems in workshops and retreats led by poet Amber Sumrall. She selects a poem ahead of time, shares one line, and pauses. Our instruction is to write a line in response to, or inspired by, that line. Next, she reads the second line, and we jot down a second line (or more, in some cases). By the end of her line-by-line reading of the poem we, the retreatants, have composed a first draft of something new. We may take time to pull the lines together into something a bit more cohesive (or not!), and then share.

I hope this “Scaffold for Grievers” for 2021 speaks to you and offers consolation. I find it amusing that I have had to re-visit “you do not have to be good” in order to feel comfortable sharing this unpolished draft. It is not intended as a prescription for all but rather, an expression of experience, strength and hope from one mourner to another, with a huge nod to Mary Oliver.

Scaffold for Grievers

You needn’t be strong

Don’t hold back or be brave

like ICU nurses who witness too many endings

(because doing so will make you sick

in your head, heart, gut, soul).

Welcome whatever shows up

rather than gulping it down,

swallowing your sorrow and sadness,

chasing it away with a shot, pill or screen.

Talk about this loss to anyone who can listen

(Hint: “can” is the most important word).

See how lives carry on,

some numb, some so very wide awake.

See how a fuzzy cat gets shorn,

looks gaunt, appears chilled to the bone,

and then, like magic, grows back a full coat of fur.

Whales head south and then back to the north,

seasonal signals as trusty as calendars.

Wherever grief takes you

trust the itinerary.

Hitch a ride on a whale’s back,

immersed, if necessary, in an ocean of tears.

Give the cat’s fur a long, loving stroke,

pretend you are the cat.

Feel free to share your experience, strength and hope for fellow mourners in the comments below. Or if you want, write your own scaffold poem, and share that! Remember, it’s just an exercise and “you do not have to be good!”

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“Margo’s House, 2013” was recently published in Spirited Voices: A Writing Journey into the Deep Imagination. This is one of a series of stories that may meander toward a book-length memoir.

Further resources for grievers can be found at my website.

This article originally appeared in The Compassionate Friends’ We Need Not Walk Alone.

This article originally appeared in The Compassionate Friends’ We Need Not Walk Alone, and was re-published in The California Therapist, and elsewhere online.


Prompts For Joy

Click here for a suggested anthem for this new year. Heck, for any year.

(Many thanks, Michael Sally.)

Click here to immerse yourself in Vincent Van Gogh’s art.

(Another winner, Sue Murray!)

Click here for all previous Prompts for Joy.


Pictured Above

Top: Half Moonlight. Photo by Martha Clark Scala.

Below: A sample page from Chapter 19 in my memoir, Assembling a Life: Claiming the Artist in My Father (and Myself).


Praise for Assembling a Life: Claiming the Artist in My Father (and Myself) by Martha Clark Scala

Page 175 Assembling a Life by Martha Clark Scala

"There is a healing you offered not only to yourself but also to one reader —me — and I’m sure many others . . . in watching the unfolding of your history. Watching you so intimately tell the in-depth story is brave and inspiring."

~ Anonymous Reader

Sample page from Chapter 19. This memoir is loaded with color photos (and some black and white) on just about every page. A visual feast.

To purchase the premium softcover or e-book versions of Assembling a Life, click here.


Why Assemble a Life? An Interview with Author and Artist, Martha Clark Scala

What motivated me to write Assembling a Life: Claiming the Artist in My Father (and Myself)? Check out this video to find out. Comments and feedback welcome!


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