I wanted to wrap up this week of David Whyte’s poetry with some of my favorite work. I honor and appreciate the poems that change and challenge me, but I long for poems that love me. How does a poem do that? By helping me to love myself. I shared this poem last year, but it bears repeating.

“Midlife Woman”

Mid life woman

you are not

invisible to me.

I seem to see

beneath your face

all the women

you have ever been.

 

Midlife woman

I have grown with you

secretly,

in another parallel,

breathing with you

as you breathed,

seeing with you

as you see,

lining my face

with an earned care

as you lined yours,

waiting for you

as it seems

you waited for me.

 

Mid life woman

I see your

inner complexion

breathing beneath

your outward gaze,

I see all your lives

and all your loves,

it must be for you

that I wanted to become

more generous,

a better man

than ever I could be

when young,

let me join all your

present giving

and all your receiving,

through you I learn

the full imagination

of every previous affection.

 

Mid life woman

you are not invisible to me,

in you

I see a young girl,

lifting her face to the sky,

I see the young woman

in haloed light,

full and strong,

standing before

the altar of time,

waiting for her chosen.

I see the mother in you,

in your past

or in some yet

to be understood

future,

I see you

adoring and

I see you adored,

and now,

when I call your name

I want to see

day by day,

the woman

you will become

with me.

 

Mid-life woman

come to me now,

I see you more clearly

than all

the airbrushed

girls of the world.

I became a warrior

only to earn

your present

mature affection,

I bear my scars to you,

my eyes are lined

to smile with you

and I come to you

uncultivated

and unshaven

walking rough

and wild through rain

and wind and I pace

the mountain

all night

in my happy,

magnificence

at finding you.

 

Mid life woman,

In the dark of the night

I take you in my arms

and in that embracing

invisibility feel all of your

inner lives made touchable

and visible again.

 

Mid-life woman

I have earned

my ability to adore you.

Mid life woman

you are not invisible to me.

Come to me now

and let me kiss passionately

all the beautiful women

who have

ever lived in you.

My promise

is to you now

and all their future lives.

 

I do not know a middle-aged woman, who does not long to be seen in this way. We don’t know how to ask for it and only poets like Whyte can speak it so eloquently, but  everyone longs to be loved for the fullness of their humanity, not just the veneer of their imagery. In a world that worships at the fountain of youth, mid-life is the turning point when the accolades diminish and the dream of being loved passionately begins to fade away. We are softer; our faces are lined; our hearts and bodies are marked by the cares we have carried for years. It’s easy to believe love will never come, or that if we had it once, it will never come again.  Are we worthy of love even now, at this late hour? Whyte says yes, and yes, and yes again.

To the midlife women reading this, let this poem be a mirror, reflecting you in all your beauty. And if you love a woman in her midlife, let her know through a word, a glance, or an embrace. Even a silent prayer of gratitude may carry the energy she needs to keep going and growing in wisdom, age and grace.

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“Midlife Woman” PC: Matt Maude, London, 2015

 

I am going to take a one-day break from the poetry of David Whyte to honor one of his best friends, the Irish writer and poet, John O’Donohue. Many grieved the early death of O’Donohue at the age of fifty-two, Whyte among them. They were anam cara, the Celtic word for “soul friend,” someone who accompanies you on your life’s journey, not just hand in hand, but heart and soul as well.

Whyte’s call to personal accountability has always felt like a challenge to me, direct and unambiguous, rigorous almost. I appreciate that, because that is often what is needed to make changes in our lives and habits, especially the big ones that ask us to go against our religious and cultural upbringing. But John O’Donohue had a different approach. His words are so loving, so soft and gentle, that even the most vulnerable part of you feels safe enough to speak up. O’Donohue’s work invites you to dance, not to discipline. Instead of “the questions that have no right to go away,” he simply holds up a mirror and asks you what you see.

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions

What dreams did I create last night?

Where did my eyes linger today?

Where was I blind?

Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?

What did I learn today?

What did I read?

What new thoughts visited me?

What differences did I notice in those closest to me?

Whom did I neglect?

Where did I neglect myself?

What did I begin today that might endure?

How were my conversations?

What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?

Did I remember the dead today?

When could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?

Where did I allow myself to receive love?

With whom today did I feel most myself?

What reached me today? How did it imprint?

Who saw me today?

What visitations had I from the past and from the future?

What did I avoid today?

From the evidence – why was I given this day?

For O’Donahue, that final question is the one that has no right to go away. He wanted his life to have meaning and purpose and that was the question that helped hold him accountable.

*This poem is a reinterpretation of the centuries-old Ignatian Examen, which asks its participants to reflect on the presence of God in their daily lives. O’Donohue was a Catholic priest for nearly two decades, before leaving the position to devote himself to his writing.

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This poem by David Whyte is called “Sometimes.” The irony is that Whyte’s poems don’t challenge his readers sometimes, but all the time.

“Sometimes”

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,

you come to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

 

This is one of Whyte’s simpler poems to understand, but that makes it no less challenging to engage with. I have never visited the landscape he describes, the  deep mystical Irish countryside, but I have experienced the kind of “trouble” that landscape brings up for him. It isn’t the setting that is important; it is silence and the stillness it offers. It takes a special place, a place far from the busyness of the world, to hear the “questions/ that have no right/ to go away”.

In our modern world – one that prioritizes performance and efficiency (supreme market values) above all else – these questions are rarely asked. They don’t make sense; they don’t really matter; and to answer them honestly might require us to transform our lives. The lines that haunts me above all else are these:

… to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

For years now, this invitation has arisen again and again, to not just consider what I am doing, but who I am while I do it. In all that I do – parenting, marriage, teaching, working, volunteering, studying – how am I showing up and why? I want to be able to name and claim my energy and purpose honestly and with integrity. To be clear, I fail all the time in my execution, but I try to never fail to ask the “questions/ that have no right/ to go away”.

David Whyte lists and elaborates on his questions that have no right to go away in this essay for Oprah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Start Close In”

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To hear
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until it
becomes an
intimate
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

 

I wish this poem was already in existence when I heard yesterday’s poem, “Sweet Darkness.” I heard that first poem as an “invitation” to change and this one as a “how to.” Though I found my way without access to its particular wisdom, I have found it so helpful since. It is a daily reminder to wake up, to take stock, and to always start “close in.”

I am a future-oriented thinker, so I have a tendency to get ahead of myself.  I don’t while away hours thinking about the past; I don’t often get lost in the present moment. Rather, I can spend hours daydreaming about the future and how things might go. I can get ten days, ten weeks, ten months of planning under my belt in just minutes. This poem gently, lovingly, and wisely calls me to start in the here and now.

This poem is a call to problem-solving in the present moment by taking a long, hard look at the real, which is almost always “the step/you don’t want to take.”

This poem asks me:

What am I avoiding?

What am I refusing to see?

What don’t I want to change?

Whyte invites us to ground ourselves, literally, in“the pale ground/ beneath your feet” and metaphorically by finding the ground of our own being, listening to our own voice, intimately and humbly. Only then will we have the wisdom to courageously make the next right step.

grayscale photography of person wearing checkered slip on shoes
My favorite shoes to take steps in these days…

The second week of National Poetry Month is dedicated to David Whyte, the poet, essayist, and speaker, who reignited my love of poetry almost two decades ago. I “studied” a fair amount of poetry for both my graduate and undergraduate degrees,  which I mostly neither cared for, nor truly understood. As a result, my early love for poetry faded away. But one day, I heard David Whyte speak at a conference and he rekindled the fire. In the midst of reading his poetry, he also preached a message about importance of bringing passion and commitment to your life and work. He lit a spark in me, which has become a flame that burns in me to this day. Here is that poem he shared.

“Sweet Darkness”

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

When I heard Whyte speak, I was in the midst of parenting three small children. While I would not have called my life “dark,” it had certainly gotten smaller, more noisy and chaotic. I had allowed so many voices into my head – culture, church, parent, spouse, children –  I had little idea what my own voice was saying. When Whyte repeated this line – over and over again:

Anything or anyone/ that does not bring you alive/ is too small for you.

something deep within me stirred and I recognized a truth I had not dared to speak, or even recognize. My life was too small and I was ready for this time of “confinement” to be over. Something new needed to be born – the fullness of me as a woman in her own right, not simply as a wife and mother. I shared these lines of Whyte’s poetry with Tim Kirkpatrick and he met me there, convinced as I was that “the world was made to be free in.” It has been a sweet, sometimes lonely, and dark journey, but it has been worth it every step of the way.

What is too small for you right now?

Who is limiting your potential?

Where do you find yourself trapped instead of free?

Don’t be afraid to name whoever, or whatever arises as you ask these questions. It does not mean they are bad, or that you have to leave them, but it does mean you can start pushing against the boundaries, creating more freedom for everyone in the process.

gray candle lantern
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

While I certainly didn’t live up to my hopes of publishing every day during this first week of National Poetry Month, I more or less lived up to any reality-based expectations I had of myself. However, hope springs eternal, so if all goes well, I will be sharing a new poet with you tomorrow, (but it could be a day or two later)!

Late on this Sunday evening, I offer you some closing thoughts from Mary Oliver.

“To Begin With, the Sweet Grass: Part 7”

What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.

Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.

That was many years ago.

Since then I have gone out from my confinements,

though with difficulty.

 

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.

I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.

They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment

somehow or another).

 

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

 

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

 

This is a poet writing from a place of maturity, peace, and wisdom. She has struggled; she has grown; she has something to offer us. Do you know who is willing to take risks and be vulnerable by sharing all they know? Those who trust in their own value and their place in the world.  The poet has reached that stage and I am grateful for it.

This poem has found it’s way into my heart by alluding to so much spiritual (and scriptural) wisdom in whimsical language, and short sentences. They remind me of things I am just beginning to know.

Nothing is wasted. Everything belongs. Love your enemy as yourself. As your ego dies, you are reborn. You are important, but you aren’t important at all. Be light. Be free. Be Love.

green grass field
Photo by Jesse Zheng on Pexels.com

The poet Mary Oliver is taking us in  a different direction today. Though nature is her solace and her joy, it isn’t just those things. It is also her empowerment.

By being in the outer  world – observing it, knowing it, respecting it – she is able to bring those  skills to her inner world. Nature changed her and so she was able to change her life.

“The Journey”

One day you finally knew

What you had to do, and began,

Though the voices around you

Kept shouting

Their bad advice –

Though the whole house

Began to tremble

And you felt the old tug

At your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

Each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

Though the wind pried

With its stiff fingers

At the very foundations –

Though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice,

which you slowly recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper,

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –

determined to save

the only life you could save.

 

Mary Oliver did not have an easy childhood, and a loving home. Her young-adult leaving was not met with a joyful sendoff, but with terrible guilt and shame. Pursuing her happiness would ruin their perfect sadness.  I believe it was her hours and days and weeks and months spent in the woods, watching how each living thing took root, or flight and took care of itself that allowed her to do the same when the time came.

medevilLabyrinth1

I hit my first snag, just two days in to National Poetry Month, but as a bonus, you get two Mary Oliver poems today. While nature continues to be her primary motif, the theme is slightly different. See if you can recognize what has shifted in her attitude.

“Foolishness? No. It’s Not”

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count

the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have

to climb branch by branch and write down

the numbers in a little book. So I suppose

from their point of view, it’s reasonable that

my friends say: what foolishness! She’s got

her head in the clouds again.

 

But it’s not. Of course I have to give up, but

by then I’m half crazy with the wonder of it

– the abundance of the leaves, the

quietness of the branches, the hopelessness

of my effort. And I am in that delicious and

important place, roaring with laughter, full

of earth-praise.

 

“Green, Green is My Sister’s House”

Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent way to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.

But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly.

I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and not want to go back.  So

if someday you can’t find me you might
look into that tree or—of course
it’s possible—under it.

 

Obviously, Oliver has been aroused to write about a completely different experience in nature. Instead of awe and reverence, the company of trees evokes a lightheartedness in the poet. She forgets any limitations put upon her by her age, her friends, or even her species and responds to the arboreal invitations with joyful enthusiasm. While I have little experience with any trees but palm trees, which are no good for climbing, I have a lot of experience with the emotions they bring about in her.

I cannot count the number of days I have spent at the beach “roaring with laughter” and “half crazy with the wonder.” From surfing with Tim and the kids, to rolling in the shore break with my siblings (when we were small and even just last year), to playing frisbee up to our knees in the waves, the effervescence of the waves seems to bubble up within me as well, producing an overflow of emotion. In those moments, held by the water and waves, the point of our existence together seems to be nothing but joy.

Oliver puts it so well: “I try to be good but sometimes/ a person just has to break out and/ act like the wild and springy thing/ one used to be. It’s impossible not/ to remember wild and not want to go back.”

What nature helps you remember your wild? Where do you find your inner child? What still leaves you breathless, laughing and aware of the absurdity of our overly-cultured and sanitized existence? When have you last gotten so “outside” your comfort zone that you giggled from the rediscovery of an original home ?

Oliver writes about more than just nature, which we will begin to explore tomorrow.

worms eyeview of green trees
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

“Thirst” by Mary Oliver is written in a very different form than yesterday’s “Mindful,” but they share a similar theme. According to Oliver, nature is our first and best teacher and according to Franciscan theologians, nature was the very first Bible. God did not rely on theologians, logic, scripture, or even Jesus to reveal God’s self to humanity. Knowledge of the Divine has been offered to us all along, since we first had eyes to see and ears to hear.  We need only use them, Oliver reminds us in her poetry.

“Thirst”

Another morning and I wake with thirst

for the goodness I do not have. I walk

out to the pond and all the way God has

given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,

I was never a quick scholar but sulked

and hunched over my books past the

hour and the bell; grant me, in your

mercy, a little more time. Love for the

earth and love for you are having such a

long conversation in my heart. Who

knows what will finally happen or

where I will be sent, yet already I have

given a great many things away, expect-

ing to be told to pack nothing, except the

prayers which, with this thirst, I am

slowly learning.

 

For the first thirty-plus years of my life, unlike the poet, I was a “quick scholar,” happily hunched over my books. As a child, I spent my recesses in the library, until they shooed me out the door. I never wanted to leave when the bell rang. Books were my way, my truth and my light, but not any more. In the last decades, I have tried to become a “good scholar” like Oliver, learning from the created world and trusting my own experiences as much as anything else. It has not been an easy unlearning, but I persevere, praying for a “little more time” to let Love do its work in and through me.

woman sitting on grass by lake
Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

 

April-poetry-month

I cannot believe it is April 1 and National Poetry Month is upon us.

While I want to keep up my annual commitment to sharing a daily poem, it’s going to be a challenge this year. I’m “on the road” thirteen of the next thirty days, but I want to do it if only for myself, because I love poetry. I also want to do it for any readers who love poetry, but also for the ones who don’t love it yet.

I am making one significant shift this year. Instead of trying to include a wide variety of poets, I am focusing on the poets I return to again and again, the ones who have fed my soul and changed my life. I may even include poems I have shared in previous years, because one reading is never enough.


This first week, I am  honoring Mary Oliver, who passed away in January of this year at the age of 83. Known affectionately around our place as “Molliver,” she was a poetic naturalist, more at home outside than in, more comfortable around animals than humans, more inclined to use fewer words than many. In other words, not much like me. And yet, the themes of her poetry speak deeply to me. She too is a seeker and rebel.

“Molliver” also first came to mind because of my son Finn, who shares her love of nature and her deep way of seeing. What she captures in words, he captures in photographs. Like knows like and I have always thought that if their paths had crossed, they would have been great friends. I don’t think it’s any accident that the love of Mary’s life was the photographer Molly Malone Cook. Like knows like – in nature, in life, in love.

So without further ado, here is my first poem in the National Poetry Month series, dedicated to the memory of Mary Oliver and the future of Finn Kirkpatrick.

 

“Mindful”

Every day

I see or hear

something

that more or less

 

kills me

with delight,

that leaves me

like a needle

 

in the haystack

of  light.

It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen,

 

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

 

in joy,

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

 

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

 

the daily presentations.

Oh good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

 

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these –

the untrimmable light

 

of the world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

If you can, even for just a moment today, be mindful – of the light around you, the feel of the breeze on your skin, the warmth of the sun on your face, the sound of the birds out your window. Be a good scholar and grow wise – not in the ways of the world – but in the ways of the universe.

IMG_4006
Finn captures the “untrimmable light” of a sunrise rainbow over the Pacific Ocean.

 

(As always, if the thirty days is too much, feel free to skip away. I’ll be continuing my Lenten reflections, so if you want to tune in for those, just look for that in the title.)