Rumi showed up in last Tuesday’s mail, twice

Out here in the bush we pick up our mail once a week, on Tuesdays, when LW drives into town to deliver eggs. It’s always an occasion. When I hear her truck pull up the driveway (and you can’t help but hear it due to the cherry bomb muffler she installed to indulge her inner 16-year-old boy), I hurry downstairs to the kitchen in anticipation of treasures that lurk inside the returning egg delivery box. It’s usually a let-down: a newsletter from our stalwart MP Nathan Cullen; adverts for farm machinery; a notice that I’m overdue for a mammogram. But last week, Rumi showed up in the box—twice!

Ah, Rumi. That wacky 13th-century scholar/theologian whose words can be found on many a Facebook meme. Here’s one I particularly like:

I don’t mean to be flippant about Rumi. No one who reads his poetry could remain flippant. His work is timeless, sublime, subversive, mystical. But isn’t it an interesting time we live in when Trumped-up Islamophobia is juxtaposed on social media with a collage that renders the work of an Islamic poet as a feel-good New Age inspirational meme?


Rumi and the Red Handbag, by Edmonton poet/novelist Shawna Lemay, turned up on Matilda Magtree’s (anti) shopping list a week before Christmas, and I was intrigued enough by the title to click through to the publisher’s website, where it’s described like this:

“What is the soul?” asks Rumi, the poet. “If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks.” Rumi and the Red Handbag follows the lives of Shaya and Ingrid-Simone, working together one winter at a second- hand clothing shop. Theodora’s Fine Consignment Clothing shop becomes a small world where Shaya, an academic who abandoned studying the secrets of women writers, finds in Ingrid-Simone a reason to begin writing again, on scraps of paper and post-its. Fresh, unique and intelligent, Rumi and The Red Handbag is a journey to the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, a journey to find Rumi, the soul, and the secret hidden in a red handbag.

I was hooked! A couple of mouse-clicks later and my copy was on its way, a wee Christmas present for myself.

By the time the book arrived last Tuesday, I’d forgotten I had also mouse-click-treated myself to a music CD I read about on Brain Pickings: Shannon Hawley’s A Different Kind of Progress. What intrigued me in Maria Popova’s post about the album was the notion that “some of history’s greatest poetry and philosophy should become the creative seed for … an exquisite 13-song cycle, five years in the making.”

Shannon Hawley sent two copies of A Different Kind of Progress all the way from Shelburne, Vermont, every track as exquisite as the poems they honour. What a gift, to breathe music into Rumi’s “Muhammad said no one looks / back and regrets leaving this / world. What’s regretted / is how real we thought it was!”

I devoured Rumi and the Red Handbag and will read it again, slower this time. I’ll tell you more about it then, maybe, but you really should read it yourself. You won’t be sorry. (And it’s on sale right now at Palimpsest Press.)

I wanted to find a Rumi poem to embellish this post, so I went hunting in my bookshelves, but I couldn’t find the little book of Rumi’s love poems that used to live there. I can’t imagine donating that to the library, especially because it was a gift from Judith, but who knows? Poemhunter turned up a list and one title jumped out, the same way books fall out of the library shelves into Ingrid-Simone’s hands—something I’ve already told you happens to me sometimes. Wouldn’t you know it’s the very poem that runs like a gossamer thread through Rumi and the Red Handbag?

Whoever Brought Me Here

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.

This poetry. I never know what I’m going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.

~ Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

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