This is one of my favorite Rilke poems, in part because he writes of a woman.
“Wer sens Lebens viele Widersinne”
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth –
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of the evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.
When I first read this poem, it felt autobiographical, as if Rilke had been privy to my life.
When my kids were small, my life resembled nothing so much as a hall full of “loudmouths,” all of which I had given birth to, married, or simply allowed to take up space in my mind. I had little time to start mindfulness practices, but I began anyway. Rising in the dark to journal, walk, meditate, or pray were my attempts to create a silent space, a private place, for God to enter my world and partner with me. To this day, we are still weaving the “single cloth” of my life together, because the “ill-matched threads” never stop coming. Change is constant, inevitable and rarely what we have planned, yet what can we do? We can hold on tight, drop the threads, tie ourselves up in knots, or at best, if we follow the warp and weft of Love, we can make something beautiful.
At the mid-point of Holy Week, this poem also reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the often demonized, sometimes revered, “Apostle to the Apostles.” Though rarely mentioned in church services this week, her face was one of the last Jesus gazed on before his death and the first he saw on the morning of his Resurrection. Surely she was with him today and each step of the way this week.
I only need to read the last stanza of this poem again. When you are gifted a transformative Love like that, where else would you be?
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.
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.
One day you finally knew
What you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
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
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.
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
“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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
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.
(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.)
even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
spring, summer, autumn, winter –
flies through my mind in its
hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.
So I just lie like that, while distance and time
reveal their true attitudes: they never
heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
Of course, I wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints –
all that glorious, temporary stuff.
The poet Mary Oliver, or “Moliver” as she is affectionately referred to around our house, is someone you will see pop up a few times this month. She is one of my favorites and there is a theme in her writing I’d like to explore with all of you: the sacrament of Nature, of being present in the moment however it arises and recognizing it for the holy gift it is.
I think this poem is a great start. Meditation and its companion, mindfulness, are buzzwords these days. They are offered as a remedy for everything from stress to chronic pain, as relief from anxiety and exhaustion. They will help us lose weight, sleep well, and even become better “team players” at work and home! Ugh! It kind of drives me crazy, because developing a meditation practice for those things is like taking a prescription drug for its “off-label” side effects. We might experience a relief of our symptoms, but it’s not what it was made for and it’s definitely not going to cure the underlying cause.
But I think Mary’s version of meditation might be just what the doctor ordered, in its gentle and holistic approach.
Lie down somewhere beautiful and let your mind drift. Don’t cling to what you think you’re supposed to do, or feel, or experience. Let life pass you by for a moment, or two and see yourself in the midst of things, where “distance and time” have “never heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.” From that place, we might wake refreshed and perhaps even “cured” of what ailed us in the first place. We might even find ourselves grateful to be in our own bodies and a part of this beautiful world.
Let this poem inspire you! It’s Spring! Go find a tree, a little patch of sunlight, a place where the breeze can kiss your face. Close your eyes and in the words of Rumi, allow yourself “to be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love,” which I hope is yourself and this beautiful, suffering world we live in.
Post Script: I recently acquired a copy of “Moliver’s” newest book, Devotions, as a gift from Tim. I had been on the waiting list at the library for so long and when I finally got my hands on a copy, the weeks just flew by. On the last day it was in my possession, he caught me taking pictures of page after page on my cell phone. (Desperate times call for desperate measures! It took me months to get my hands on it the first time and I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait again.) However, two days later, it was in my mailbox. Though Tim generally supports my book-buying restraint, in this case, it deserved an exception. I highly recommend you put your name on the waiting list at your local library, or maybe even treat yourself to a copy!
Christmas is only a few short weeks away. Nineteen days to prepare, shop, bake and decorate. I was blown away at how quickly everyone got their Christmas stuff out and up and displayed on Instagram and Facebook last weekend. The turkey carcass from Thanksgiving dinner was still warm by the time the lights were on the tree. I’m not criticizing! I admire an ability to work on a full stomach. It’s just not the way I work.
I tend to put the Christmas cheer on a slow burn, much to Molly’s dismay. There have been years where the tree isn’t even bought until the 20th. Presents are kept in closets and cubbyholes until I get around to wrapping them on the 23rd. Some of this delay is simply practical. December is the busiest month of the year for Tim at the surf shop. My semester ends mid-December and I am inundated with finals and papers to grade. The kids are typically in school until the third week. Throw in a couple soccer tournaments, Christmas parties and holiday events and who has the time to decorate?
This year, most of those factors still exist, but more so than ever, I find myself holding back from the Christmas “spirit.” Instead, I’m immersing myself in Advent and the mystery of the Incarnation. If I could, I would wrap my house in deep purple. It would stay dark and candle-lit and smell like pine needles. I would transport us to the top of a snowy mountain where we could sit quietly and reflect on what it means to give birth to Christ in and through our very selves. Of course, Tim and the kids would hightail it out of there the first chance they got, hopping on toboggans to the nearest gingerbread village they could find.
Trying to keep them away from the joy of December, Christmas carols and cookies is more Grinch than Mother Mary, so decorating, baking and singing will commence tomorrow morning. I hate to hold back anybody’s good time, but in my own quiet time, in my reading, writing, and meditating, I am going to hold on to the mystery of the Incarnation that is pressing so deeply on my heart these days.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born from and through Mary, but the Christ is born in each of us, over and over again, throughout time and across every continent, in every gender and age, regardless of purity, sanctity or professed faith tradition. All is takes is a willing heart.
Every act of Love is an act of incarnation.
God is Love and Christ is the physical manifestation of God, so whenever we Love, truly, actively and deeply, we are bringing Christ to the world. God is incarnated through us.
Mary said Yes to giving birth to Jesus, because she Loved God. She trusted that God’s Love would sustain her through the shame and pain and instability the Incarnation would cause her. The result, she was assured, would be something wondrous, greater than anything the world had ever known. Love like this, in flesh and blood, would change everything.
Let’s be brave like Mary this time of year. Instead of going nonstop, let’s wait. Let’s sit quietly in our homes sometimes, maybe for a few minutes in the evening by the light of our tree, maybe with a cup of tea on our couch in the morning. Let’s be still and listen for where God is asking us to bring Love into the world through our own flesh and blood.
With God, who knows what that request will look like?
My little brain is constantly amazed at how certain themes invade our consciousness at different points in our lives. It’s like we open a Roach Motel in our minds and a breed of previously unrecognized (and perhaps even unwanted) ideas from the Universe just march right in, one after another. As promised, “They check in, but they never check out!” This convergence of divine wisdom changes us; the new ideas find a home and we are never the same again.
A couple of years ago, I began to see #Signs of Love, every day,all the time. Apparently, Love was what I needed to know. By encountering hearts everywhere, I understood that divine Love animates the world. Recognizing Love in everything from stones to sunlight, I began to love myself, my family, friends, and even strangers more. I had more Love. I was more loving.
Opening my mind to the #Signs of Love changed my life.
However, as time went on, I saw fewer and fewer #Signs of Love. At first I worried about the loss. “Where are my #signs? Where is the Love?” I wondered, but after a while, I got the message: Let go of what you think you need. When we are learning to walk, our parents do 90% of the work. As we get stronger and more independent, we need less “hands-on” assistance. In fact, too much help hinders us, making us dependent on something we don’t really need anymore, retarding our growth.
So I came to accept that although I would really like them, I don’t need daily reminders of the power of Love from outside of me. Rather, with every heartbeat, I am reminded that Love comes from inside of me. I also receive countless #Signs of Love from all over the world, from friends, family and even strangers. They see Love and share it with me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Truly, a divine economy. We share what we have in abundance, so please, keep them coming.
In the last year, new themes have arisen, but they aren’t nearly as photogenic, which makes them harder to share. I’ve mostly kept them to myself, but one in particular has haunted me. No matter where I go – in my life, my reading, my friendships, or my work – I’ve been brought to the same threshold over and over again. In a hundred different ways, in countless locations, in various tones, the question is asked: “What are you going to do with your life?”
It’s disconcerting, because I want to retort, “I am doing something with my life.” I’m raising a family; I’m teaching; I’m writing; I’m volunteering; I’m making a difference in my own little way. But it isn’t a silly, or insulting question, either, because frequently, I’m the one asking it. My life may be half over, but that means I still have a whole half to live. That’s great, but here’s the rub.
When I was ten years old, I knew who and what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a wife and a mom. I wanted to read and write. I thought if I could do those things, I would be happy and I was right. I do those things and I am happy. But apparently, it isn’t enough, because the Roach Motel in my head says I can’t stay here.
The problem is that I have no idea where I am supposed to go. Thirty years ago, the goals were clear. Today, not so much.
For the last several years, I have modeled my search for work based on the quote by Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I loved that idea and it has brought me this far, but recently theologian Howard Thurman disrupted my chain of thought. He wrote:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
That statement floored me. When was the last time you thought about it? “What makes me come alive?” What did you say then? What would you say now?
We should think about it, because according to Brene Brown, it really matters. Meaningful work is a cornerstone of a meaningful life. We can’t be indifferent about it. Squandering our gifts, opting out of what brings us joy and purpose, deadens our souls and the souls of those around us. If we, as parents, bury ourselves alive, we are teaching our kids to do the same. I don’t want to do that. Keara, Finn and Molly are just getting started.
In my journal, I posed the question, “What makes me come alive?” and this is what I wrote:
Loving God, my husband, my kids, my family, my friends; praying; reading and studying about humanity, our struggle and spirit, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Writing and talking about the things that fill my heart and mind. Sharing what I know, what I have, and who I am. Taking time to be well: spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually and helping others to be well too. Encouraging, listening,journeying with people who are ahead of and aside and behind me on the way.
Though I looked, I couldn’t really find a lucrative job description in there. If something occurs to you, let me know (really!), because so far, what I’ve come up with is spiritual director, or modern day monk and I don’t think either of those career paths is going to pay the kids’ car insurance, or college tuition.
That is the tension Tim and I haven’t worked out yet. How can I be truly alive,the center of a home that hums with energy and beats with love and contribute more significantly to the family’s financial stability? We’ve been stuck in a reductionist, either/or mentality, believing I have to choose one, or the other: get a job, or keep being alive. We are typically pretty smart people, which makes our lack of creativity on this subject so frustrating, but we are also stubborn, which opens up the possibility that an answer lies before us that we simply refuse to see. The Roach Motel keeps telling me there is a third way we simply haven’t discovered yet.
To that end, we are taking a risk. In the fall, I will be starting a two-year program at The Rohr Institute. It is called the “Living School for Action and Contemplation,” describing itself as an “underground seminary” which empowers students “to live out their sacred soul task in their homes, workplaces, and all relationships, within a more spacious stance that is at once critical, collaborative, and joyful.” The school is based in New Mexico, but most learning is done online, with two weeks a year on campus. I will still be able to teach, to parent, to be present to my life here, while “coming alive” in a more intentional way.
I haven’t shared our decision with many people, mostly because it feels a little foolish. I won’t finish with an additional degree, or improved job prospects. I’m afraid people will think Tim is signing off on it for my sake, that our complex and heartfelt decision will be reduced to “Happy wife, happy life.” I doubt myself and wonder if I am just putting off the inevitable job hunt, buying myself two more years of “not-choosing,” two more years of putting my own desires ahead of those of my children.
They have everything they need and most of what they want, but there are many things left on the table. Some of them are silly like iphones; some are practical like laptops and some of them are so heartbreakingly beautiful, or simple, I want to cry. From attending art school without going into major debt to popping for a full-price movie ticket on a Friday night, I think, “If I could just die to myself, maybe I could make more of their dreams come true,” but then I take a deep breath and remember. My emotions might be real, but the fear is not. We live with an abundance of food, clothing, sunshine, education, opportunity, family and love. Scarcity is not our truth. When the Roach Motel says, “Listen” and I do, I come alive, thinking of all I will learn and experience in the years to come, the ways I will be challenged and changed and I pray that I bring it all back here to better serve the people I love the most (which includes all of you).
Once again, all these questions and doubts lead me back to the threshold and poet Mary Oliver’s wonderfully provocative question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” to which I answer, “I am doing it.”
I am loving and learning, praying and teaching, reading and writing, kissing and hugging and holding. I am breathing in and breathing out. I am moving forward, and falling back. I am reaching high and falling low. I am dreaming big and coming up short, day after day. Meanwhile, I am alive.