Kitty O’Meara’s poem, And the People Stayed Home, went absolutely viral during the pandemic (the irony of which is not lost on her). She sits down with Zibby to discuss her sudden rise to fame, her hope for the post-pandemic future, and the illuminating experience of being a hospice chaplain.


Zibby Owens: Hi there.

Kitty O’Meara: Hello.

Zibby: How are you?

Kitty: I’m fine. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. It’s lovely to meet you. Thanks for doing the podcast.

Kitty: Thank you. Thank you very much. I have to say, what you do, the way you use your light in the world, Zibby, it’s just amazing. Thank you for that. Books are so important, so, so, so important. They’re my favorite thing next to my husband and four-leggeds. I really appreciate what you do.

Zibby: Thank you for saying that. That makes me feel really good. I agree. I think books are so important. I love what I do. It’s an honor to be able to talk to all these authors and people who are making such a difference in the world. I get to make sure that everybody hears who’s interested. Thank you for saying that.

Kitty: You’re welcome.

Zibby: I’m so excited to talk about you and the book, for one, but really, the poem that set the world on fire here. Would you mind maybe just telling listeners, from your perspective, what happened? You were a middle school teacher, hospice chaplain. You’ve been writing your whole life. Then you wrote this poem, and it went viral. You tell me in your words what happened and how it made you feel.

Kitty: It was March 13th, which was a Friday, almost a year ago now. Phillip and I had already decided to go into lockdown. I had worked in healthcare. He had been a science teacher and just retired. We both knew maybe with greater awareness that it would be safer for us to do that earlier than later, so we did it. Of course, I was concerned about my friends who were still teaching. I was concerned about my friends very much in healthcare because it was being publicized that there was a shortage of PPE. I knew that in the Midwest it would come in a different wave than what I was watching every day on the news with Governor Cuomo. There was just concern and the inability to do anything when you’re in lockdown. I write poems and things and post them on Facebook. My friends, they’re a lot of theater people, a lot of artists, other writers, but also a lot of teachers and healthcare workers, so a lot of people just going, yeah, there’s Kitty writing something again. I wrote this at a lunch break that day. I just set it down as a kind of a parable, a fable, a little thing you could give to a child and say, you see how it went? It wasn’t as bad as people might have thought it could be. It could be this wonderful time of healing.

Of course, everything in my whole life came into that. I was an educator. I have this huge, huge mother instinct. I’ve always considered myself an artist and love artists. All of those things, the importance of healing our whole life, it all came into it. It was also kind of an unconscious moment of writing. It wasn’t something I had been kicking around or rough drafted or anything else. I just wrote it for Facebook, just, here guys, have a good day. I closed my computer. That night I went back on just to do the check through. A friend said, “I like this. May I repost it?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” It was probably a couple days later that Phillip was scrolling through his page and said, “That’s odd. A student of mine posted something you posted. You don’t know her.” We couldn’t figure it out. Then a friend called. A doctor friend of mine in Madison called the next morning. She said, “Deepak Chopra just read something you wrote.” I said, “What now?” I went to Deepak’s page and saw that. I couldn’t think of the word “went viral.” I said, “Phillip, that thing happened with the thing that I posted.” Then we figured it out and laughed at the irony of going viral during a virus. Then it really went viral. Our lives were kind of upended. I spent about the next three or four months just answering emails and comments on my blog of people soliciting use of the poem for various endeavors and enterprises. It made my year of lockdown so very different than what it could have been for just the two of us and our four-leggeds and everything, but also compared to a lot of other people, so it’s very hard for me to put it in perspective without, again, pulling the camera back and seeing how spectacularly bizarre and unique it was compared to what a lot of my friends were going through.

Zibby: Wow. In terms of usage, you said you were responding so much. On your website now, on The Daily Round, it says unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. I actually want to read what you said because you obviously feel very strongly about this. You said, “Please don’t write to me on this or any other post requesting to use this poem as a slogan, a theme song, or any part of a commercial venture designed to sell things we don’t need. I reserve all rights to the material for the time being. Using the poem to sell anything is also antithetical to its theme. I wrote it to inspire the creative artist and giver in all of us, not to prop up a corporate structure I believe has contributed to the destruction of humankind, the Earth, and all living things.” Tell me about that.

Kitty: I say that with all gentle peace.

Zibby: I was like, all right, tell me what you really think, Kitty.

Kitty: I know. I’ve never been shy about that. Here’s the thing. It probably was the specific day I wrote that too. You’re inundated. I mean, inundated. I went from zero to a thousand miles an hour. You’re shot into space in terms of the emails, the contacts, some by phone, but not as many. Of course, my voicemail doesn’t work very well, so mostly by email and comments on the blog. I don’t have people. I’m just this person living in her home without people to do her things. To do it with integrity, I felt they all had to be responded to, which is another reason I didn’t move a lot for three months. I really want to get back to people. Most of them, overwhelmingly, were kind, were complimentary, wanted to use the poem for artwork, wanted to use it to create something and offer it to healthcare workers and frontline workers, to children, to older people who were in nursing homes, things like that. I love that. I really loved working with artists because most of the endeavors were either with no money changing hands at all or if money were to be made, we could donate it and we could agree on that. Those were wonderful things. Then to be contacted by huge corporations, “Could we use this for X, Y, Z?” it was just so antithetical to what the point of the poem was. After several of those, I guess my Irish temper got kicked in that day.

Zibby: It’s still up there if you need to temper it at all, not to say you should. I was reading about the viral nature and the uses of it. The poem was in a twenty-six-city something in Romania without crediting you. There were all sorts of bizarre uses of it that who could’ve ever thought? Now it’s so great that you’ve turned it into a children’s book on top of everything else. Is it true that Kate Winslet is reading the audiobook? I didn’t have time to go check. I read that at first, she was attached.

Kitty: Kate Winslet did the reading for the Books version,, a really cool site which you’ve probably covered on your podcast. I have to say, when you say I created the book, all credit goes to the people at Tra Publishing. They contacted me on my blog, of course. We cocreated this together. To me, the artwork and production is phenomenal. I just love it.

Zibby: I love it too. It’s amazing. It’s so perfect for now. It’s just beautiful in its own right. I’m holding it up, for the people listening, which you can watch on YouTube. Am I allowed to read the poem, or is that appropriation? I don’t have to. I don’t want to get in trouble. I don’t want to be on bad side. Can I read it on this podcast, or not?

Kitty: I think it would be wonderful. I’d love to hear you read it.

Zibby: This is great because then maybe I could just play this and read it to the kids. On a night that I’m really tired, I can be like, here, I’ve already recorded this for you. And the People Stayed Home by Kitty O’Meara. O’Meara, is that how you pronounce it?

Kitty: Yes.

Zibby: I’ll do a reading. “And the people stayed home. And they listened and read books. And rested and exercised and made art and played games. And learned new ways of being and were still. And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.

Some met their shadows.” I love that page, by the way. “And the people began to think differently. And the people healed. And in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses and made new choices and dreamed new images and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.” Beautiful. So beautiful.

Kitty: Thank you.

Zibby: You wrote that, though, the day that everything started. This was almost like a wish. It’s wish that this is what happened. Then it became reality, a lot of it, in fact, with dolphins in the canals in Venice and all the things that we saw happening with the world. You couldn’t have known that at the time, necessarily. Could you? Maybe just from what happened in Europe?

Kitty: Yeah, some of that was being reported. Then I took that with my belief that we come with gifts and we’re here to share them — I think sometimes the way we’ve orchestrated our lives and designed the world, we’re prohibited from doing that. We don’t have time. I thought, now we have the time to be with the people we love the most. Yes, this is an idealized version. Are there days when these poor parents with their children confined are not all going insane? Yes, but at least together, on the bright side.

Zibby: We sure were together. No lack of togetherness. That’s for sure.

Kitty: It was hopeful and wishful.

Zibby: It’s really inspirational and beautiful. The illustrations, which I know I just shared, but especially the one meeting their shadow, the man meeting his shadow and sitting across from his shadow at the table in the dark, oh, my gosh. It’s gorgeous. It’s haunting and gorgeous and true. What does it feel like now to know that a little something you wrote during your lunch break has touched so many people?

Kitty: That part is, of course, mystery. It always will be. You try to parse it and define it and corral it. You really can’t because that is the nature of going viral. It’s completely out of your whole control. You can’t pull it back in no matter how strongly you request that people be careful with how they use it. It’s been an amazing spiritual journey for me as well in terms of letting go, surrendering, limiting myself, limiting my energy, focusing it again, refocusing it again. It’s an experience that is — again, here I am taking mystery and confining it to logic and math, but I’d say it’s about ninety percent blessing and gift. Ten percent of it I could’ve done without. That not a bad deal at all, I don’t think. I think that’s amazing.

Zibby: That’s an A-, right?

Kitty: Yeah. It’s fine with me.

Zibby: I’ll take an A- on any project. That sounds good.

Kitty: Especially when you’re not prepared.

Zibby: You didn’t even know you were taking a class. All of a sudden, you got a grade.

Kitty: That’s right.

Zibby: Wow. Now that this whole thing has happened to you and changed your life and touched other people and all the rest of it, how does that make you rethink — of course, we’re still in this. I don’t know if you’ve had your vaccine yet where you are or if it’s coming.

Kitty: One.

Zibby: One of them, okay. We’re approaching, hopefully, god willing, the end of this. What do you want life to look like after for not just you, but for all of us? What do you think it will look like? What do you hope it will look like?

Kitty: The news of the world, specifically here, is not the cheeriest. I had hoped, as I think everyone probably had, for a little more peace, or a lot, a greater calmness in our approach to each other. What we’re seeing in Washington is not, I think, what anyone want to see. Those of us who have been in lockdown all this time in the great unheard masses here, other than through our votes, may come out of this differently. I don’t know how that will look. What I would hope would be that there would be a slower pace to our being, not that we’ll walk slower. Driving slower would be all right with me. Just not take so much on our plate. Contemplate more during the day, what lies before us, what our choices are, and what our responsibilities are. See where kindness can come in. We’ve seen great acts of kindness. Those aren’t promoted and televised. They’re not in The Times and The Post as much as the things that will get us riled and excited and hyperventing very quickly. They’re true. They’re real. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them. I’ve heard stories about them from others. We can take those things in. This experience, certainly we know more about each other. There’s no way we could escape that if we live in a family and we’ve been in lockdown together.

I think people who are creative will have used this time ably. I’m excited to see the art that will come out of it and is coming out of it. Some friends of mine now who are in New York and have connections with Peru, they’re mostly from Peru, they have a jazz band. Tonight, they’re releasing their album on Zoom. It’s called Social Distancing. It’s bookended by their version of this poem, actually, their musical jazz version of this poem. I think these ideas that have been seeded during this time of what we can be perhaps will bloom and blossom in the days to come. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping that we’ll see things we hadn’t expected, that creative people will be putting together new ways for us to live, to meet climate change and all it’s going to require of us. I’m curious to see if during this time people have begun to learn they can do with less or if there’s such hunger and thirst that there’ll be sort of a rush to get back to the way things were.

I’ll tell you, as a chaplain working spiritually with people at the end of the life or facing these dire, dire diagnostics, I’d always ask them, “What would healing look like for you?” You would hear, of course, a wide variety of answers. Some people wanted to just get back to the way it was, but you can’t because it’s not that way anymore. Now you have had a coronary artery bypass or now you have received information that the end of your life is coming sooner than later. Now it’s not what it was. What will healing look like now? Our belief was always, as spiritual care providers, that any kind of healing can happen right to the last breath. What is healing for you now? What does that look like? That’s what I would ask our world. That’s what I would certainly ask our country. What does healing look like? What part of that are you able to contribute to with the gifts you’ve been given? I think I got off track there. Sorry.

Zibby: No, that was great. I don’t usually talk about this, but this is my book that I got done during the pandemic. To all your points about creativity and whatever, this is my contribution. All proceeds are going to COVID research. I collected a bunch of essays from other authors. I feel compelled to do my part. I feel like we all have to do what we can do. I am not skilled in medicine or anything else, but I can collect stories and hopefully help people read them.

Kitty: Don’t diminish it. Be proud of that because that is a gift. As I said at the beginning, that’s your light. It’s shining. That’s exactly what we should be doing. It’s different for every single one of us. It doesn’t have to be what people think of as the arts. What I like is that you bring the idea of art into what it is you do. What is the art in the job before you? Find it. For me, that means that you’re creating. You’re constantly evolving and making it something new and inviting contribution and cocreating with the people around you and their gifts. It’s a good time for that. I think too much, we look at what it’s a bad time for. It’s bad, the pandemic, oh, my god. It’s bad, climate change. Yes, we’re way behind on these things, but we’re capable of putting our creativity and intelligence to work and tackling these things. My little book, your wonderful collection of essays, these little things that we do, they help. I do want to mention that Stefano Di Cristofaro and Paul Pereda are a big part of that book with their artwork. Like I say, it was just this wonderful cocreation, this team working together to make it as beautiful as they could. Those Zoom meetings were just pops of joy for me throughout the year.

Zibby: I feel like the art in this book should be used in other ways. I’m not sure what plans you have for it or whatever.

Kitty: I agree.

Zibby: Not to say it should be, necessarily, wallpaper, but it could be. It could be anything.

Kitty: It could be. I know.

Zibby: It’s so pretty.

Kitty: It could be dishes and tablecloths.

Zibby: It should be placemats. I’m thinking tableware. I’m totally thinking tableware, yes.

Kitty: The Staying Home Collection. It is beautiful.

Zibby: Totally. Wrapping paper. It’s gorgeous. It’s really gorgeous. I’m sure you are writing for yourself all the time anyway, but are you going to try to write for a publication going forward?

Kitty: Yes. Tra actually has taken on a second book. It’s called The Rare Tiny Flower. It’s being illustrated and will be launched — . It always sounds like we’re shooting it out to space. It will be launched next fall with the season in the fall. I’ve just finished a third. I never saw myself particularly confined to picture books, and I’m not confined, but even that I would be the author of picture books because I am not a visual artist other than I like photography. I think I’m a very visual learner. I see what I’m creating when I write it. It’s a very happy marriage for me at this point in my life to write picture books. I’m having so much fun. It’s just fun. To be with a team working, to me, is ecstatically joyful. I have never been a team person ever in my life. I always wanted to do it myself. I went back for all these degrees. My first time through with my theater degree, my English degree, you did your work. You turned it in. You got your grade. Then when I went back to school, it was always teamwork this and teamwork that. I was like, oh, god. There’s always people who don’t want to do it. You end up picking up the slack. I’ve always been kind of bossy. That’s just who I am. I have my ideas. I see the end product. I’m kind of a neat freak. I want to organize it and do it. This is a revelation. It’s a real joyful one at this point in my life to be working with these wonderful people. They’re all so kind and nice. We have so much fun at these meetings. It’s bliss.

Zibby: Amazing. I love hearing that. Wow. I think you also have a memoir in you if you ever feel like writing it. I think you have such a unique, soulful look at the world. Your experiences in the hospice world and all this end-of-life information, I think there’s a story there.

Kitty: There probably is. It’s an illuminating pursuit. People think chaplains just walk in and hold hands and say prayers. That’s so much not what it is. It’s a very great gift to be with people at the end of life. It’s just illuminating. It is, literally. You’re in the light. Things are falling away from who you are, all the things that don’t matter, all the things that you fret and worry about. It’s not because they’re dying. It’s because you’re seeing so much more about what life is, that it does include death and that death is not to be feared. It’s this amazing, amazing stage of life. You get to witness it and be with it. It’s precarious but I also think further illuminating as the spiritual care provider because it is not your heart loss, which is not to say you don’t get pretty intimate with people fairly quickly when they’re sharing things with you that they’ve never shared with their family. I’ll tell you — I know this is going off track, but it’s so cool. It’s such a neat thing about it. Some of the things they share with you that they won’t share with their family are seeing their dead spouse over the last several months or years. They don’t want to share that with their children because they’re afraid their children will not honor it or put them into a nursing home and doubt their stability, which is sad. The stories themselves are just a pure gift to unpack with them.

Zibby: You should call it And the People Passed. It should be a whole collection of your — I can see the whole thing. You can email me.

Kitty: I think you’re an editor.

Zibby: We can work on it together.

Kitty: That would be fun. I think it would be fun.

Zibby: It would be fun. I think it would be more than fun. I think it would be so helpful for people who fear death and who need that connection and insight that you are in a unique position to provide. Anyway, do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Kitty: Yes. Don’t give up. I quit teaching to write and tried to publish two books I wrote for middle grade for quite a while. You get frustrated. There are so many hurdles and so many ins and outs and so many connections you don’t have that you see would help if you did. All of that, it’s not the romantic, just do like Scott Fitzgerald and write your short story and send it in to The Post and Maxell Perkins, whoever that was, they’ll take it. They’ll write it. You’re safe then. Everyone knows who you are. You got your career established. It just isn’t like that. It’s quirky and harder than that. What I will say is I’ve come across so many people younger than myself who have found, through technology, ways to promote themselves and get themselves seen and heard and read. To me, that’s wonderful. I would say don’t give up, which I’m sure sounds tedious, but it’s the truth. Also, get truer and truer and truer to who you are. Don’t worry about people saying, we don’t like animal books. We don’t want this. We’re not looking for that. You write what you are. That’s all that little piece was on Facebook. It was everything I am and not looking to please anyone. It wasn’t about that. It was about the writing. It was about the words. It was about the meaning. If you do that, you might be surprised what happens.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I love that. Kitty, thank you. Thank you for sharing your time with me and your story and all of your insights and thoughts. I really appreciate it.

Kitty: I do too. This is so much fun. I just love it. I do love your podcast. I collect podcasts and I listen to them at night in bed if I’m not able to sleep. It’s been a real gift. Several of yours, recently especially, have touched me deeply. Again, I just really thank you.

Zibby: Thank you so much. That means a lot. Thank you. Have a great day. Thank you for your time.

Kitty: You too. Take care. Be well.

Zibby: Take care. You too. Buh-bye.

Kitty: Bye.


And The People Stayed Home by Kitty O’Meara

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