Getting Through February (the Longest Month): Everyday Magic, Day 965

A moment yesterday (big round thing is rain barrel we’re repairing). Note approaching deer.

As life has repeatedly, February is the longest month. Maybe it’s the overwrought repetition of cold, ice, and snow after months of winter. Maybe it’s the shy hints of spring to come — often snow drops before they get snowed under, or days like Thursday, when Harriet and I walked unfettered by heavy coats andg ear in 55 degrees — before the heavy hand of the winter storm warmings land again. Maybe it’s more personal because this is the month when my beloved father-in-law died (10 years ago as of the 10th) as well as my dear friends Weedle and Hadassah died during the shortest month that is anything but short.

Yesterday it snowed, enough so that much of my area of the country was closed to all but those intrepid drivers who ventured out while the accident blotters grew.  Tonight, maybe some freezing rain. Tuesday, more snow. Our local school district has now had so many snow days that even the teachers I know are jonesing to get back into the classroom.

But it’s not just snow and ice flying around in single-digit winds. February is often when I see the most winter birds, having tried of thrashing against winter enough to just watch the bird feeders and Cottonwood Mel fill with juncos, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, bluejays, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and usually at some point soon, bluebirds. Squirrels stand on the deck railing, ferreting out the leftover black sunflower seeds. The deer bravely slink across the field to surround the bird feeder too while we hold the anxious-to-protect-us-from-them dog by his collar and tell him to chill out. Yesterday, in the middle of the whirling snow, it looked like a scene from Snow White outside our living room window while beef stew made its way to perfection in the crockpot and I whipped up a batch of applesauce muffins.

As the first February in 23 years that I’m not spending half the month at Goddard at a residency (on unpaid leave this semester), my view is uninterrupted (although Vermont does February seriously). When the sun returns, like right now pouring over my typing fingers as I watch a chickadee hop across the snowy deck, I forget the length and weight of February. Instead, I see how much there is to be with right now. Spring will come, but here is the continual flight of winter wrapping us in its surprises and surrenders.

Big Picture Days and Little Animal Moments: Everyday Magic, Day 964

I am watching a happy squirrel make his way through the birdseed buffet I poured along our deck railing, his tail in full fluff as he bends to gingerly pick up another black oil sunflower seed. Meanwhile, the snow around the legs of the chair melts slowly, the dog snores, and the cat takes in the big-picture field and sky.  It’s an oasis moment in the middle of big picture days: stretches of long conversations with myself and others about how my work is evolving, where I feel led, and how I can discover more about the metaphoric wells in the field of my calling. My mind has turned into a bit of a dowsing stick, sometimes making it hard to sleep enough or just chill and trust all will be revealed in time.

I’ve been thinking so hard that I’ve landed in myself into the land of the fuzzy-headed, seeking solace in deep-sea naps on the couch, iced tea, and the refreshing wonder of Ricola cough drops. It’s also the land of watching: a chickadee zigzags across a board in our deck, taking in what the squirrel knocked over.

I’ve noticed how much considering the bigger questions of our lives is best counter-balanced by small animal moments of paying attention to the critters inside and outside of this house and this human. After all, we are animals ourselves, and animals can easily occupy our psyche as symbols and talismans (anyone else out there ever dream that your dog turns into a panther?).  By leaving behind the figuring-it-out-fixer-bee excursions and just being present with what is at this moment, I can breathe myself into greater quiet, peace, and perhaps eventually, clarity.

It’s a funny thing — true of poetry and life — that observing what’s up close and personal can actually show us more of the big picture, sort of like looking at cells through a microscope to understand how life constructs itself.  As a writer, I’m attuned to the small and vibrant: the cardinal driving off the little birds, the sky just now turning itself into scattered clouds between our shining day and our snow-to-come night, and even the sensation of my fingers on the keys of this laptop, clicking their way toward one specific word that will invite in the next word.

In Praise of Mary Oliver: Everyday Magic, Day 962

“I started early — took my dog” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that speaks to Mary Oliver’s generous life and poetry. She loved her dogs, getting outside early to wander  for hours (“Tell me, what else should I have done?” she writes) and, along the way, inviting countless people to  love poetry early, or at least earlier than never. Oliver’s writing is a gateway drug to poetry, gently and fiercely cajoling would-be readers into the wilds of the shining earth and living poem.

I can’t remember when I first encountered Oliver’s poetry, but I know this: it wasn’t when I was doing a PhD in poetry despite my comps requiring me to become well-versed on over 50 poets from Beowulf to Sharon Olds. Oliver wasn’t invited to the party of the canon of what was deemed good literature, at least in the early 90s, but then again, I didn’t encounter Rumi there either. Although her spectacular book American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize, her lack of verbal gymnastics and her abundance of accessibility didn’t land her on the reading lists of the graduate courses I took.

Instead (and even better), Oliver’s poems landed on thousands of refrigerator doors and in multitudes of journals, scribbled by people at wit’s end finding solace in the questions she asked, such as “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” and in the advice she gives, such as these lines from “In Blackwater Woods” so many of us hold close to our bones:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to it go,

to let it go.

Her wisdom is hard-won and home-grown. Born in 1935 in Ohio, she found refuge in the natural world and poetry. She told Maria Shriver in an interview that she had been sexually abused while growing up and couldn’t shake recurring nightmares. Poetry, which she began writing at age 14, gave her a frame for a healing narrative; the earth and sky filled that frame. She set out from home following both, which led her to the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, where she befriended the poet’s sister, then moved into Millay’s home to organize Millay’s papers.

She dabbled in college, but didn’t earn degrees; likewise, she made it a point never to take on work that might lure her away from poetry, saying, “If you have an interesting job, you get interested in it.” She did a myriad of menial jobs so that she had time and space to write about what she was called to do most, such as in “The Journey,” a poem about finding our own voice as we wander deeper into the world, “determined to do/ the only thing you could do –/ determined to save/ the only life you could save.” She said the natural world was “salvation from her own darkness,” so it’s no surprise that she wrote in ways that helped others do the same. Poetry, she said often, saved her life.

So did love. Sometime in the late 1950s she met photographer Molly Malone Cook, later writing, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.” They were in love for over 40 years, living together in Provincetown, MA, a more protected perch for lesbians and artists making a life together, until Malone’s death in 2005. Oliver wrote in Our World of how they had a “rich and abiding confluence” on influence on each other, going on to say:  “I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have.”

For days and years, Oliver wandered the woods and beaches. What was she searching for? Obviously, as she wrote about in poem after poem, the life force as evident in white moths in flight, a grasshopper in the palm, skunk cabbage up close, and weedy morning glories as totems of beauty. She wrote of her dog (well, all her dogs), a little hawk leaning sideways, and a “black ant traveling/ briskly modestly.” She modeled a life of close observation to recover our vision of what David Abram calls the “more-than-human world,” even if dying and changing all around us, shining a flashlight on the magic inherent in the ordinary as well as a search light on how we’re just one species in “the family of things.” From such awareness, she showed us what Rumi, one of her all-time favorite poets illuminated: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Or as Oliver put it, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”

Although Oliver wrote “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” in “The Summer Day,” her poems resonate as prayer, teaching us what she also says in that poem: “I don know how to pay attention” and how such attention can grow our kindness, strength, acceptance of what we can’t change, and bravery to face what we must. One of my favorite poems of hers, “West Wind #2” sings a song of courage to our “heart’s little intelligence”:

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, led your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
toward it.

Oliver spent her life rowing toward the long falls, yet she was remarkably down to earth. When she came to the University of Kansas in 2010, I got to have dinner with her and other guests the night before she gave a talk. She was gracious, honest, funny, and irreverent,  joking with us, “You are all welcome to visit, but you won’t find me” and “This is the first time I’ve been in Kansas, and it occurred to me I had to land in Missouri to do it.” She embodied her writings, both her prose and poetry, without distance or pretense. It was easy to imagine her, back on the Cape, like Dickinson, out early with her dog, skirting the sea, then darting through the woods to pick up one of the pencils she hid in a tree so she could write something down.

“I love the earth so much, and I am so grateful for my single life that it doesn’t scare me that I would give my life back one day. I would give the earth everything,” she said that day in Kansas. Now she has, but on her winding and wobbling trails through this life, she also given the earth to us.

See my blog post from 2010 on “Mary Oliverisms” here, and please consider subscribing to this blog (see “Subscribe to this Blog” on the right-hand side).

“How Aren’t You?”: Hummingbirds, Rumi, and Twilight: Everyday Magic, Day 949

In my favorite Rumi poem, “Say Yes Quickly,” I love these lines especially:

Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where
you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, “How are you?”
and no one says How aren’t you?

All day long, I’ve been pondering how I am not. I am not at Goddard College, finishing a long day of faculty meetings after, as goes my habit, a long night of fighting my travel-spun brain to calm itself enough to tip out of consciousness. I am not walking back to the dorm to get some snacks I bought, likely rice crackers and hummus, to bring to another dorm where most of us faculty convene to relax, joke around, and retell our old stories around wine and whatever crunchy tidbits Karen brought us from Japan. I’m not stepping outside in the cooler-than-here twilight there, watching the tall swaying firs and pines at the forest’s edge, and telling myself to pause enough to take in this beauty.

Instead I’m on my porch about 1,500 miles west and an hour earlier where my view holds bigger sky, smaller trees, and a whole lot of hummingbirds zip-lining without lines from Osage orange tree to feeder to mid-air acrobatics. It’s lovely to be home, far easier on my schedule, health, and sleep cycle, and the air is full of mild buzzing, perhaps the fading out some of cicadas and the gearing up of katydids right before the barred owls call that sounds like a baritone reverse rooster crow.

As some of you faithful readers know, I’m taking my first leave after measuring out my life by semesters much the way J. Alfred Prufrock (in T. S. Eliot’s poem about him) measured out his life in teaspoons. Luckily, semesters hold more than cutlery, and they certainly held me during 64 consecutive ones teaching at Goddard, K.U., and Haskell Indian Nations University. Spaciousness abounds, at least in theory and hopefully in practice soon, without the weight of all the time I would spend traveling, working, traveling, recovering, then undertaking the fabled and heavily-emailed ways of the semester.

At the same time, being human with a propensity for habit and connection, I miss my peeps at the college where residency beginnings are so sweetly imbued with hugging, catching up on each other’s lives, laughing at Katt’s great spins of life,  or finishing each other’s sentences on occasion because we’ve been seemingly together forever in this program. I miss the beautiful campus (although I’ll be there in October for the Power of Words conference) in its summer fullness and all those cute Vermonters who think 82 degrees is hot out. I also miss the nearby pond, crazy cold and deep, where I swim with Lise or Lori, having learned the best way is to go in fast and paddle my arms and legs wild-fast to warm up enough to propel myself across and back. Somewhat discombobulated with all the shifts lately, I tell people I’m at twelves and thirteens, sort of like being at sixes and sevens, but more so.

I’m very happy to be home watching the western horizon orange itself dark while listening for what comes next. Who am I untethered to an academic schedule for six months? I have no idea, but I’m very happy to be on the cusp of reaching my long hand toward another door and stepping over the threshold.

Photos of the view from here and now.

Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam!: Everyday Magic, Day 902

Once we saw the postcard, we couldn’t un-see it. Seven buffalo coming on Tuesday — “Please make all necessary arrangements” — rung through our minds all weekend. Yup, we figured buffalo wouldn’t actually arrive, but this little message is one of those whimsical delights of a lifetime. It had no return address, and postmarked in Kansas City meant it could have come from Lawrence or from Kansas City. It was also worded so bureaucratically that whoever sent it is surely a great life artist.

While the buffalo didn’t arrive, getting to share the news on Facebook, not nearly as exciting as getting a small herd, did have it rewards. “Sadley, but not unexpectedly,” I told people, the buffalo didn’t come. “Call Amazon,” my mother wrote, Others suggested I contact Fedex or UPS, and Dan cautioned that the buffalo couldn’t stay in boxes for long in the sun. There were lots of cow patty puns, Bob posted a photo of a historic Brewster Buffalo plane, Cathy shared an image of buffalo walking down the road, and Robin wrote, “How incredibly disappointing for us all.” Laura shared Pete Seeger singing “I’m Going To Mail Myself To You,” and people wondered if we were just ill-prepared or if they showed up somewhere else. I also found several other people who received the same postcard.

My favorite comment of all was Nancy’s — “hey are there! Just very, very well camouflaged!” — because I know this is true. If time is just a human construct, and past lives are actually having simultaneously in other dimensions, then the fields around our house are likely teaming with buffalo at the same time all we detect is chiggers and ticks. Thinking of who was here before us also got me thinking about what it would take to graze buffalo here again although it would take way more than between now and Tuesday to get ready. In the meantime, I’m just a bit sad to not be in what Kathryn called “the critter of the month club,” but very happy to have enjoyed the imagined buffalo with my real community.