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.
This is the third in a series of poems about meditation and mindfulness by Moliver that I wanted to share this month, which included “Drifting” and “On Meditating, Sort of.” In some ways, I think it is the simplest of the three. The direction is right in the title: “Mindful.” Moliver seems to be saying, “This is what it’s like to actually see the world. When we rush on by, we miss it all. But when we are ‘mindful,’ the beauty of the world will kill us with delight.”
I shared this poem a while ago with someone I love dearly. I read it and instantly thought of them, because I knew they would get it. Like Mary Oliver, they were born “to look, to listen,/ to lose” themselves in the natural world and they teach me by example to see the extraordinary in “the ordinary,/ the common, the very drab.” That’s the true gift I think, the one most of us leave unopened, when we prefer big and beautiful things and dismiss the “daily presentations” of grass and water and light. But it’s those little things that can save us every hour. I love how Moliver inverts our educational paradigm – claiming for herself the title of “good scholar” – who grows wise through her observance of nature, not simply through classes and books.
This beloved of mine, the one with whom I shared this poem, is going through a rough patch these days, struggling to be mindful, lost instead in a sea of sea-doubt and fear. I don’t blame them; what they are going through is hard. I can listen, offer my love, a little practical advice, but mostly, I want to whisper in their ear: “Be mindful! Go find something to kill you with delight!” It won’t make their problems go away, but for that moment, it might make them smile and help them remember the gift they bring to the world – their ability to see and capture the magic so many of us pass by.
So, to my beloved friend and to all of you,
Be a good scholar today. Go be delighted by something – in the sky or on the ground, in a bird’s call, or a baby’s laughter. Slow down enough to see it, hear it, fall in love with it, even if for just one moment. It won’t change anything, but it might change everything – eventually.
Nature has wisdom for us all: the cycles of light and dark, new and old, death and rebirth, silence and noise, diversity is health; change is growth; imperfection is inherent, but so too is beauty and abundance. Watch and wait. It will come.
P.S. For some of my readers, my use of the third person plural (they/their) for an individual, instead of the 3rd person singular (he/she/his/hers) may be bothersome. Sorry about that!
thought not the usual intention to reach an answer
but merely drifting.
Like clouds that only seem weightless
but of course are not.
Are really important.
I mean, terribly important.
Not decoration by any means.
By next week the violets will be blooming.
Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.
What was it actually about?
Think about what it is that music is trying to say.
It was something like that.
Mary Oliver from Blue Horses, 2014.
This is the second of Oliver’s poems on the subject of meditation that I wanted to share, but if you missed the first, here’s it is.
Few people have a dedicated meditation practice, but many have experienced the “drift” that “Moliver” describes in this poem, a stream of thoughts that wander from where we are to somewhere else, for better, or worse. Meditation, at least the type I practice, is not so different from that. According to the teaching I have received, thoughts will come and the practice is to let them go, allowing them to pass by, like clouds in the sky. They may be stormy thoughts, full of rain and rage, or wispy ones that tempt you to linger and imagine all sorts of good things. It doesn’t matter that they come; don’t judge them (or yourself); just let them drift away, so you can return to the entirely visible holiness of the present moment. Remain there, until you find find you’ve drifted away again, “watching the clouds.” Then, just come back to the “invisible” Presence of God.
This past weekend was a whirlwind of activity for Molly and me: 48 hours of flights and field hockey games, shared hotel rooms and food-on-the-go, lots of time for laughter, but little for silence. However, in the midst of it all, there was the inevitable “drift” towards holiness and gratitude.
Clear, blue sky after a rainy night
Bright yellow mustard fields blooming roadside
Smell of sweet white alyssum, catching me by surprise on a morning walk
Wild turkey in a field
Cow in a pasture next to a parking lot
Hugs from a sweaty girl, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in defeat
Girls of every size, shape and color on the field, playing their hearts out
Yes, indeed, Mary Oliver, “God, or the gods” may be invisible, “But holiness is visible, entirely./ It’s wonderful to walk along like that.”
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!
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.