An oasis from anxiety

Ruth Arnison

Spring, summer, autumn, winter: four times a year Ruth Arnison distributes 8000 brightly-coloured cards to medical waiting rooms, hospices, rest homes and prisons throughout most of New Zealand. She is the founder and editor of the Dunedin-based charity Poems in the Waiting Room (NZ). But why place poetry in a waiting room? People hatee poetry, right? Wrong. The poetry cards have proved extremely popular. Arnison once received an email which sums up why: Although I am not a person who gravitates toward poetry, after I read the selection of poems, I noticed I had been given an oasis from anxiety and had been briefly removed from our present situation.

How can a poem—a few words strung together on a few lines—be an oasis?  Ruth Arnison explains:

I favour cheerful cards as I’m not wanting the patients to go into their appointments feeling worse or more depressed than when they arrived. A few receptionists are quite proactive and will go around dishing out the cards to thumb-twiddlers. I guess if they’re reading they’re less likely to be clock watching.

Waiting room patients tell me they enjoy the cards because the poems are easily accessible, sometimes funny and always relatable-to. They frequently mention that they are a wonderful contrast to the often tired magazines in waiting rooms whose contents can’t seem to get beyond facelifts, fashion and infidelity.

The cards are conversation starters: “There were several of us old ladies waiting and some of your POEMS IN THE WAITING ROOM on the reading table. We all read them, and had a pleasant discussion about which was best. I am sure our blood pressures were several points lower as a result…….

They help time pass more calmly: “Just wanted to drop you a line to say how marvellous it was to find the poems while waiting in the Emergency Doctor’s surgery for an hour in a distressed condition – that little blue brochure with “yours to keep!” on the front was just a godsend.

They inspire creativity and expression:  “I have a 12-year-old girl here in our waiting room who just asked for pen and paper because she was inspired to write a poem after reading yours.

The “Yours to Keep” aspect is popular and welcome. It’s quietly nourishing to leave a medical appointment with a gift, perhaps especially the gift of well-made language. It seems to say that words matter, that what we say—and the individual way in which each of us says it—is truly important:

Just wanted to let you know that I’ve widened our distribution to include our laboratory waiting room – and they have been a real hit!  Patients are obviously enjoying them as there was only one left when I re-stocked with the new ones. Can we have an extra 20 next season please.”

From my personal point of view, I’ve found writing poetry on various medical encounters has been a cathartic process.  Last year I completed a suite of poems about our daughter’s short life. A friend shared them with a group of his GP registrars and said the reading was followed by silence and then a very satisfying discussion about breaking bad news and trying to understand the patient’s experience. He thought the poems were a powerful aid to cultivating empathy.

Here’s a poem by Portland (Oregon) poet Annie Lighthart which appeared in the Spring 2015 card:

The Hundred Names of Love

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.

© Annie Lighthart 

I include poems for children on the cards too. They appeal to all age groups, and can spark inter-generational conversations—a father reading aloud to his toddler; a grandmother taking a card home for the grandkids. Here is my own poem ‘Runaway B’, published in the Autumn 2014 card:

Runaway ‘b’

I’ve found a lonely letter
lying on the ground.
Have you lost a little ‘b’?
Did it leave without a sound?

If you had no b at breakfast
did you eat read and utter?
And did you search on the street
and even in the gutter?

Did you put your ooks in your ag
and then race for the us?
Did you hear the school ell ring
and get to class without a fuss?

Now if the teacher tells you
to mind your ps and qs,
you just say they’re ok,
it’s only bs I lose.

©Ruth Arnison


Ruth Arnison is a part time Administrator at Knox College. This position allows her time to: enjoy daily walks, read, write, work on Poems in the Waiting Room and organise her latest project Lilliput Libraries.

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