Is There a Line of Poetry that’s Become Your Mantra?

Interview: Rachel Kelly.

An old friend told me about about Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me: My Journey Through Depression. In it, she describes her struggle with depression, and how she was able to use her love of poetry to help her during this time.

In this memoir, she recounts her experiences, as well as the poetry that moved her so deeply.

For me, the opposite of happiness is ordinary unhappiness; depression is its own third, urgent category. But happiness, unhappiness, and depression are all worth studying, for insights into one brings insights into the others. I was eager to hear what Rachel had to say about happiness and good habits.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier? 

Rachel: A habit that consistently makes me happier is to recite inspirational quotations in my head, mantra-style. My favorites include “My strength is made perfect in weakness” from Corinthians in the Bible, as well as a line from a poem by George Herbert: “Love bids me welcome,” which reminds me to keep returning back to a place of love and compassion.

My memoir Black Rainbow has fifty poems in it; all full of great inspirational lines that have helped me change the narrative in my head and feel less alone.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

I now know that mind and body are intimately linked. A healthy body helps cultivate a healthy mind, and vice versa. If I’m mentally tense, then I’m physically tense. Equally, if I can become physically relaxed, it helps me to become mentally relaxed. The two are inseparable.

When I was younger I didn’t give much attention to my physical health because I didn’t feel as if I needed to. Now I know that if my head is a mess, it’s sometimes best to work at it the other way round by trying to optimize the way my body feels and functions. Physical exercise plus breathing and relaxation exercises are all crucial healthy habits that I didn’t previously recognize.

Do you have any habit that continually gets in the way of your happiness?  

Eating sugar continually gets in the way of my happiness because it makes me feel physically lethargic and low after an initial “buzz.” I turn to it when I’m sad and think I need a treat; just as when I was little, I was given sweets to make me feel better.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I would describe myself as a recovering Obliger. I have managed to become a bit less of a people-pleaser and am now better at listening to my own needs.

However, I do also try to put my tendency to oblige to good use. I have found the concept of “external accountability” really useful – thank you Gretchen!

So in order to stay fit for example, I have committed to doing an exercise class with my husband — so I have to show up because he’s expecting me there.

Another tool that’s been fundamental to growth and change has been learning to be more compassionate with myself and to stop pushing myself so hard. When self-criticism sets in, I now imagine treating myself as I would one of my own children. I ask myself: would I be so hard on a small child? On my own darling daughter? Saying she had to show up at every function and do whatever it takes to make everyone else happy? No, I would not.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel or an Obliger

This is such an easy question for me. My default setting for a long, long time has been “Obliger.” I was born an Obliger. I imagine that when I was a baby I would have said to my mom: “No, really, only feed me if the timing suits you,” and “Don’t worry – I’m fine with a dirty diaper.” I always aim to please.

I once went to the screening of a friend’s film, waited for the credits to roll and then let myself out through the emergency exit to go to another friend’s party, because I didn’t feel as if I could let either of them down. To top it all off I rushed home for dinner because I had promised my daughter that I wouldn’t be out that evening.

I’m such a people-pleaser that I even keep score of how many people I manage to please; it’s very much a number’s game. Each time I feel as if I’ve given another person what they need from me I get a high — a rush.

Thank goodness, I’ve begun to change. Very slowly I’m edging towards becoming more of an “Upholder” and more able to respond to inner, as well as outer expectations.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone, birthday, a health scare, etc? 

I experienced a lightning bolt moment when I first identified myself as a people-pleaser: so many things fell into place in my mind. This was thanks to a conversation with my therapist and was also informed by reading Better Than Before, which had a big impact on me. [That’s so nice to hear!]

I realized that being such a compulsive Obliger had literally almost killed me. Trying to do too much, please too many people, working long hours while raising my young children, led to serious depressive episodes that made me want to take my own life.

Do you embrace habits or resist them? 

Like many people, I’m a great one for embracing new habits with enthusiasm for a few weeks, and then my commitment begins to wane. But over time, some good habits have stuck, luckily, which is actually the subject of my next book – Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

  • ChrisD

    Not quite a poem, but a line from the TV show Absolutely Fabulous is my travel mantra: Tickets Money Passport. I really nearly forgot my passport last year but remembered because of this mantra.

    • Mimi Gregor

      Hee! That reminds me of the “mantra” I repeat to my husband before he leaves to go anywhere: MoneyPhoneKeys. He usually forgets one of those things and has to come back for it.

    • L Miles

      I love that someone quoted Ab Fab! Can’t wait for the Ab Fab movie next year.

  • Trina Summers

    This little poem helps when I am feeling insignificant, especially the last line.

    All worries and troubles have gone from my breast and I play joyfully far from the world. For a person of Zen, no limits exist. The blue sky must feel ashamed to be so small.”
    Muso Soseki

  • Marti Canipe

    When I was in a tough place professionally about ten years ago a dear friend gave me The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. The final line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a touchstone for me.

    • Swan Drsti

      Yes! Mary Oliver!

  • Gretchen S.

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master

    One Art by Elizabeth Bishop helps when things seem overwhelming

  • Swan Drsti

    Yes! A line from a Mary Oliver, “who ever you are no matter how lonely this world offers itself to your imagination.”

  • Kelly

    Emily Dickinson from “I Dwell in Possibility” the line “spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise”. Gathering paradise should be a daily activity!

    Also, two years ago when faced with having to move from Colorado to Massachusetts, feeling overwhelmed and unhappy, someone I scarcely know recited a Wendell Berry poem to me entitled “The Peace of Wild Things”. Hearing the poem took my breath away and gave me a beautiful perspective. Here is part of the poem (a copy of which is push-pinned into the wall of my kitchen so I look at it everyday):
    “I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free”

    It’s good to remember that the stars are always there, even when we don’t see them. And that there is beauty in the darkness.

  • Amelia Titus

    Ah, I have two items to add here! The poem I think best represents the way you SHOULD treat yourself is Derek Walcott’s poem “Love After Love.” It is a wise reminder that you can always return to the things that made you happy when and that you should be gentle to yourself. It leans a bit sentimental to be a “mantra”, though. This is where an extremely weird line from an Anne Sexton poem comes into play for me!!! My “life mantra” is the phrase “Despite my asbestos gloves.” Anne Sexton started a stanza with that clause and I have been mesmerized and mystified by it ever since. It has slowly and weirdly become my mantra! It came at a trying time for me when I felt like everything I touched would turn to dust and it meant, “Despite these wild circumstances in my hands, I will be strong.” It was just such a weird line, and it made me feel like a survivor, and it stuck!

  • Kim

    Two poems sum up how I chose to live an interesting life (I’m now age 74):
    The Road Not Taken
    by Robert Frost
    ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,’
    = Adventure
    and from:
    A Psalm Of Life
    by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    ‘Footprints on the sands of time’
    = Mission in life

    The ‘Footprints’ quote has inspired me to write on things I’ve found interesting and useful in my life for my children and grandchildren.

    The two stanzas in full:

    Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time;

    Footprints, that perhaps another,
    Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
    Seeing, shall take heart again.