The Story of “Reincarnation” by Jenny A. Burkholder

Illustration by Briana Hertzog
May 29, 2017
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The Story of “Reincarnation” by Jenny A. Burkholder

     Last January, I was in yoga school at Blue Banyan Yoga Studio & School, and I was asked to develop a Karma Project. As described, “Karma means action. We are said to all be connected by a tightly woven web of karmic energy—each action we do affects both the Self and the Universe.” The project was up to me and encouraged “Selfless Service.”    

     Immediately, I thought of MLE. She’s a dear friend, mentor, colleague, and fellow poet. Together, we have taught and written poetry and have mentored countless students on what makes a poem. We also live under the always-open umbrella of illness, hers, a chronic autoimmune disease and mine, cancer. So in my mind, my Karma Project had to include her, and it had to include poetry. When I approached her about it, she laughed at the idea of being someone else’s “karma” project!

     Honestly, what I envisioned was about and for both of us.

     Here’s what we agreed to do: for every day in the month of January, we would write a poem and send it to each other on a postcard.

     From there, the project began to take a life of its own. It became ritual, a way to serve the universe. Every morning at 4:57 a.m. my alarm went off. The pattern was simple: drink coffee, meditate for ten minutes, read poetry, handwrite a poem on loose-leaf paper, type it up, paste it to a postcard, affix a stamp, and place it in the mailbox. All of this before 7:30 am. And every day was the same.

     The journey was exhilarating and awful, terrifying and electrifying. Some days, the words came so easily. I’d draw from my yoga notes and title poems, “All This Just to Stand,” which my teacher said in class one morning. Or “Fire’s Type A Personality,” which another teacher mentioned in her lecture on the gunas, nature’s three fundamental forces. Or as I was writing, I’d think about my yoga practice and write about what seemed to be living in my body. Some days, the words came with tears. “For Amy in California” is for my friend who died of breast cancer this past summer. 

     I wrote “Reincarnation” on Thursday, January 21, 2016. I had been reading Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, and The Selected Levis, a collection of Larry Levis’s poetry. I don’t know how these books made it to my desk at this moment in my life, but death and gratitude were constantly on my mind, so they became this poem.

     Learning to catch the language in the moment, let it go, and not be attached to the outcome were the lessons of this project. Knowing MLE was waiting for a postcard allowed me to feel the words’ weight and then release them. The challenge of this was the practice. Like coming to my yoga mat, often I was confronted with my own fear, sadness, joy, self-doubt, and blankness. But it was the Self who kept showing up in the glow of my desk lamp. And like yoga, I had to go to the same place the next day and try again.

     The discipline of this practice was incredibly freeing, and the rhythm of the morning became something to look forward to, but I had to manage my expectations. In meditation, I had to quiet the monkey-mind that wanted to begin the poem before I got to my seat, the mind that thumbed through the Rolodex of images, events, and places I could write about. To focus in that time was also part of the project. To be in those ten minutes, that space of pure focus and concentration became part of the energy being sent out into the world.

     Another wonderful facet of this project was receiving the poems from MLE. We agreed that getting the postcard in the mail was the highlight. To know that the words had traveled across town, directly from me to her and her to me, was exciting. Just as I let go of one of my postcards, one was in my mailbox. What a wonderful gift, to receive her poems, which inspired me to write more poems. I imagined the postman reading our words and enjoying the correspondence.

     Toward the end of the month, we laughed about how thankful we were that the month was ending then simultaneously lamented that it was almost over. The project had asked us to reconnect with language, to slow down for a minute, and to notice the world around us. It challenged us to keep up the practice even when it was trying, and when the month ended, we learned another lesson in nonattachment. We had to let it all go and begin again. 

 

"Reincarnation" was published in NAR issue 302.2, available here.

 

Jenny A. Burkholder teaches English at Abington Friends School, a Quaker coeducational school in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. She has a BA with Special Honors in English from The George Washington University, an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University, and an MSEd. from Northwestern University. Her poetry chapbook, Repaired, was recently published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have been published in New American WritingSpoon River Poetry ReviewpoemmemoirstoryEmerge Literary JournalThe Prose-Poem Project, and Glimmer Train, among others. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the online issue of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art and Epiphany. She’s received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry and won the Glimmer Train October Poetry Open. When she’s not writing, she’s practicing and teaching yoga at Blue Banyan Yoga Studio & School in Philadelphia. 

Illustration by Briana Hertzog. Briana received her BFA in Communication Arts and Illustration from Virginia Commonwealth University. After graduation, she attended the Illustration Academy where she was mentored by a group of renowned illustrators. 
 

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