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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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“A Voice from I Don’t Know Where”

It seems you love this world very much.

“Yes,” I said, “This beautiful world.”

 

And you don’t mind the mind, that keeps you

busy all the time with its dark and bright wanderings?

“No. I’m quite used to it. Busy, busy

all the time.”

 

And you don’t mind living with those questions,

I mean the hard ones, that no one can answer.

“Actually, they’re the most interesting.”

 

And you have a person in your life whose hand

you like to hold?

“Yes, I do.”

 

It must surely, then, be very happy down there

in your heart.

“Yes,” I said. “It is.”

 

Mary Oliver, “Moliver,” from  Felicity

On the first day of National Poetry Month, I knew this would be the poem I offered on the last day. Though there are other favorites from other poets, this was the note I wanted to end on. It is the last poem in Moliver’s collection, Felicity, as well, so I’d like to think I’m using it as the author intended, as a final summation and quiet reflection on her life. It’s a subtle poem, a simple series of questions and responses, but that’s what I like about it.

One of my favorite things about poetry is how gems like this one can slip by unnoticed on a first, second, or even tenth reading. Though I try not to collect books, (Tim may disagree), I tend to keep poetry around me. What I pass by one day, can bring me to tears on another. So if you find a poet, or a collection you like, keep it. Read it over a period of time: months, years, or decades even. It will always be new, because you are always new. One of my habits is to scribble the date on which I “fell in love” with a poem in the margin. I may not always be “in love” with it, but it honors the part of me that was and what I learned from it at the time.

I’ve heard from many of you that poetry is not your favorite, that you “don’t get it,” but that over the past month, these little reflections have helped you engage with it in a new way. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! Poetry can be challenging to read and difficult to understand, but most things worth our time are also challenging and difficult, and ultimately enrich our lives.

Marriage, parenting, family, community-building, spirituality, engineering, physics, politics – they matter and most of the time, we “don’t get it” right the first or second time, but we try again and again. Poetry is something I’ve added to that list of “worth my time,” as a meditative practice and calming influence at the end, or beginning of a busy day.  Here are some tips.

When I read it, I try not to get frustrated; I let it wash over me, once, twice, a third time.

What do I notice? What line do I like? What pushed me away? Is there even one thing I can understand?

And then I let it go. I will be drawn back to it, or not. No problem either way.

My favorite moment is when I realize that a poet, (though not every poet,) writing five years, decades, or even centuries ago, had access to my heart, which is of course the universal heart. Their hopes are my hopes; their fears my own. We are asking the same questions, celebrating the same joys and suffering the same losses. We are not so different after all and if nothing else, I hope this month of poetry showed you that.

 

 

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“Descending Theology: The Garden”

We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.
From Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr, poet, author, and adult convert to Roman Catholicism.
I began National Poetry Month with a poem taking place on Holy Thursday and thought I’d wrap up the month in that place as well. Tomorrow is the last day of the month and the final poem, at least for a while.
Mary Karr has a keen, realistic take on all things, even, or perhaps especially, the scriptures.  This is the third poem in a five-part series on “Descending Theology,” focusing on the “descent” of God into humanity, through the mystery of the Incarnation. Oh, how human Jesus appears in this moment! Isolated, disappointed, scared, resigned, and finally resolute.I think my favorite line is:

“The Father couldn’t/ intervene,/ though that gaze was never/ not rapt, a mantle around him.”

The use of the double negative, “never/not,” brings a laser focus to the wordplay that follows. “Rapt” is used as both an expression of God’s undivided focus on the beloved son and as a homonym for “wrapped,” the mantle of Divine love that held Jesus closely, even in this darkest and most desolate of hours. As a parent whose own children are beginning to leave the nest and face their own dark nights, I am “rapt” and they too are “wrapped.”
Perhaps this focused attention and love, “rapt/wrapped,” makes no practical difference, but it matters deeply to both the gazer and the receiver of the gaze. It is the pathway through which Love flows between them, sustaining each for another day, another task, another way of being in the world. Without the “rapt gaze,” the Resurrection never happens, not for Jesus and not for any of us.
Anyway, I pray that by the time I breathe my last, I too will be able to acknowledge that the goodness of my life, “was all mercy anyhow,/ unearned as breath” and “pray for pardon.”

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Photo by David Whyte

“Prayer for an Invitation”

I pray for you, world
to come and find me,
to see me and recognize me
and beckon me out,
to call me
even when I lose
the ability to call on
you who have searched
so long for me.

I pray to understand
the stranger inside me
who will emerge in the end
to take your gift.

I pray for the world
to find me
in its own wise way.

I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those I have
learned to love
and those
I must learn to love.

I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those I cannot
recognize
in my self-imposed
aloneness.

And
I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those
I wish to be
wanted by.

But I acknowledge
the power
of your beautiful
disguise, and I ask
for the patient heart
of all things
to understand
the abiding
fear I feel
in following
your unknown
ways,
in my
fear of receiving,
in my fear of
taking your hand,
in my fear
of following
your hidden,
difficult
and forever
beckoning
way.

“Prayer for an Invitation” from the newly published collection THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD

 

David Whyte, author, teacher and corporate consultant, is one of my favorite poets and philosophers, but not one easily included in this month-long collection. His poems are not the like the nature-based verse of “Moliver,” nor the lovely ruminations of Rumi, the humor of Hafiz, or even the accessible gravity of Rilke. His poetry is full of solitude, and melancholic soul-searching. But when I’m blue and don’t want to be cheered up, or am struggling with an inner question that will not be resolved easily, Whyte is the poet I reach for. Perhaps you can see why?

This is the type of prayer I can relate to, the type of prayer that often fills the pages of my morning journal. When I am moved to pray, it is never with a simple and direct request.  Anne Lamott, whose writing I adore, has said we only need three prayers: Help! Thanks! Wow! In other words, humility, gratitude and awe. But for wordy folk like myself and Whyte, those three words fall far short of expressing the complexity of our longing for the Divine, or the divine fullness of our own humanity.

I love how Whyte takes the time to articulate six different longings in the first six stanzas, direct prayers that require distinct acknowledgement. To pray, “I want to love and be loved,” is one thing, but to understand how your own shadow will avoid the recognition of that love is a greater gift that can lead to greater good.

After those first prayers, the poem turns, with the word “But.” Did you recognize it on first reading? Here, the narrator shifts to humble self-reflection, in essence saying, “I know I just asked for all those things – to be wanted, needed, loved – but now I’ll admit that my fear will be the very thing that will keep me from accepting the invitations you might send to answer my prayers.”

Why are we so afraid? Why do we so often refuse God’s invitations, even though they contain the very answers to our prayers?

For myself, I can only offer the words of another of my favorite teachers, Paula D’Arcy: “God shows up disguised as our lives,” a concept Whyte must be familiar with, proffering his own poetic version: “I acknowledge/ the power/ of your beautiful/ disguise.” We are afraid of strangers and strangeness, of walking blindly and opening our hands to receive, when we do not know what will be placed in our open hands.  But if we trust the Giver, God disguised as our lives, can we not trust the gift as well?

Obviously, I don’t have the answer that question, but poetry like Whyte’s asks me to reflect on it faithfully.

 

 

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“Shoveling Snow with Buddha”

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

 

Former Poet-Laureate, Billy Collins, is sometimes called a “people’s poet,” because he can write poetically about every day items like weighing your dog on the bathroom scale, a great osso bucco dinner, and a surreptitious review of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog, which landed in the mailbox with his wife’s name on it. (No, I’m not kidding, and even that poem made me smile with its sardonic wit and self-awareness.)

I was hoping to find a Buddhist poem to share with all of you, and that may still happen, but I ran across this poem by Collins and couldn’t resist it. To me, it is the perfect integration of lofty spiritual ideas and the drudgery of every day life. If one must shovel snow, what could be more sublime, or transcendent than shoveling snow with Buddha?  Clearly it transported Collins for several hours one morning while he completed what I can only assume is a truly onerous task.

The acronym, “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?) has graced bracelets and posters for a decade or more, but I never understood the appeal of that eponymous Christian question. When faced with a difficult dilemma, it makes far more sense to me to just ask him directly: “Jesus, what would you do?” Go directly to the source, so to speak.

I think Collins would share my impulse. If one has an unpleasant task, why not do it in the company of your hero? Why not draw near the master to watch and learn from a place of proximity and intimacy, instead of through the lens of distance, history and third-party interpretations?

Shoveling snow with Buddha taught Collins about patience, equanimity, silence, the satisfaction of a job well done and the simple pleasures of community, cards and chocolate. Obviously, that’s not all the Buddha has to teach him, but it’s certainly a place to start.

Who would you shovel snow with? Who would you like to spend a few hours with, engaged in a difficult, physical task? What might they teach you and how would you reward yourself afterwards?  It is the start of a weekend, so perhaps you’ll get the chance.