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).

Looking for Patterns and Finding Them Everywhere: Everyday Magic, Day 961

A Mount St. Helens Vista

When Ken and I went to Mount St. Helens with friends several years ago, I was dazzled by the patterned forests full of checkerboard green across green. Ken explained that this pattern, so unlike all other mountains of forests I’ve ever seen, was because all the trees were the same age, starting anew together after the volcano blasted all this land clear and bare.

I’m a pattern-hunter, watching, tallying, and seeking to understand patterns that come through my life. This particularly appeals to me when happy things tumble together, like in the last 24 hours when a friend resolved a scary medical issue, my son got a new job, various friends and family landed on happy endings to challenging stories, and just this morning, several new freelance jobs of the Yes-I-Want-Them variety landed in my inbox. But sometimes a bunch of seemingly bad things happen at once: migraines, the sudden need for expensive car repairs, disappointing news about work, and loved ones getting bad or downright devastating news. Likewise, it seems that the old adage that deaths and/or other difficult news happens in threes often proves itself true.

Looking for patterns occupies me various ways, like counting how many Honda Fits and Honda CRVs I see each day because those are the cars we own (usually 2-to-1 on CRVs over Fits, but sometimes the opposite is true). If I run into three old friends in a week, that’s a pattern I embrace. If I have repeated nightmares involving looking for pay phones (remember those?) in strange cities when I didn’t have a dime to my name, I consider what this pattern may be saying to me (then again, dreams are the very stuff of patterns).

A Patterned Fern

Maybe I find the pattern, or I just put pieces of the uncontrollable mystery and chaos that is life into temporary patterns to explain it to myself, but I thrive on seeing the connections of one thing to another to another. Then again, the juxtaposition of like with not-like is at the heart of writing poetry and making all sorts of other art: it catalyzes new textures and possibilities, widens perspectives, and shines up each moment to be a bit more fresh and vibrant. Looking for relationships between happenings and sightings also helps me see the wild strands of the marvelous and miraculous in the everyday.

Then again, what isn’t a pattern? Nature is all about patterns of growth, decay, and regeneration. A plant, like this fern, grows in a patterned way, and so do we (although we can tweak the pattern with diet, exercise, or the lack of). Seasons pattern us in their patterned parade through, and life itself cycles through its patterns.

What we tell ourselves about being alive, our very philosophies, are often the bedrocks of patterns, such as  “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” (repeated often in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). No doubt the flip side pattern will take center stage again….and again….but I choose to embrace the inevitable good, or at least not horrendous, ending.

Which brings me back to Mount St. Helens, one of the worst tragedies imaginable for people and other species caught in it, yet now that place is bursting with life, such a diversity of plants and animals reinhabiting the valleys and mountains, seemingly growing at the speed of sound. But new life is like that: it comes fast and with great promise, so why not take the time to consider its textures, shapes, colors, and meanings in our own life patterns?

Surprises From 2018: Everyday Magic, Day 960

“So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I drew up a list for 2019 of experiences that had already passed: a record not of self-mastery but of genuine surprise. 1. My oncology nurse became a dear friend. 2. Even in the hospital I felt the love of God. 3. Zach is under the impression that I never get tired. These are my small miracles scattered like bread crumbs, the way forward dotting the path behind me.” — Kate Bolwer

Surprises around the bend

In reading Kate Bowler’s evocative essay, “How Cancer Changes Hope” and revising poems for my next book, How Times Moves, I’ve been making a U-turn from manifestations for the future back towards surprises from the past. What delights me most in life — and maybe you too — is exactly that: how something far better and more amazing happened than what we pined for, depended on, or planned, like right now when, in middle of writing this, Bruce Springsteen’s “Surprise, Surprise” starts playing on KCMG (my large itunes collection).

My moments of genuine surprise include these which all happen to be moments of education too:

  • I realized, while in the bathtub on Memorial Day, that I was going on leave from teaching after measuring my life in semesters for 33 years without a break in the pattern. Further thickening the plot, about a month into my leave, I caught myself up on how my soul had actually decided not just to take off a semester but a full year. A corollary surprise was that I had organized enough extra work and income to take such an unpaid leave.
  • One-on-one coaching is so much akin to holding someone’s hand as we step into the wild landscape of their creative callings. It’s also something I love doing.
  • I’ve fallen more deeply in love with Lake Superior, my husband’s laughter, what a crockpot can do, all three of my kids, walks along the curving perimeters of cedars on shining days, yoga, the pink shimmering ring around the full moon, making art (parfait dyeing, sculpey, watercolor pen play, etc.), homemade butter, reading, long lunches with dear friends, mackerel clouds, Call the Midwife, Shay the Dog and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats, and music I hear, witness, and make.
  • The death of a very central being in our family — my mother-in-law — isn’t at all what I dreaded it would be, but instead a panoramic immersion in fierce and tender emotional states, all lit from within by love.
  • Each of the 25+ reading and workshop I did for my novel Miriam’s Well felt completely new and alive.
  • Ecstasy, or at least some dose of contentment and satisfaction, is readily available to me when I embrace the seasonal tilts here and now, whether driving up autumnal mountains in Vermont rich with goldening maples or looking up into the snow dazzling down in Kansas or walking to the edge of a peninsula on a cold day in Madison or sitting on a sweltering porch on a too-still summer day full of birdsong and cicada roar. It’s even available right now on a blank-sky day while the rain bounces off the deck outside and the cats sleep inside.
  • Sometimes a new friend is so obviously a life-long old friend that it’s a puzzlement to answer the question, “so how long have you two been friends?” (thinking of you, Laura), and sometimes an old friend chimes back for new discoveries (yup, you, Ravi). Related to this, the friends who hold my stories are godsends when it comes to reminding me where I came from, what I got through, and what freedom I inhabit right now to follow what calls.
  • Health and maintaining it is just about more everything that I imagined. Likewise, certain things (I’m looking at you, chocolate mega dessert) that used to embody great mouth joy can quickly trigger a Rube Goldberg-like chain of pain.
  • It’s an old adage to be careful with or lower our expectations, but I expect we can keep expecting gratitude and surprise, which leads me to share this poem from my new collection-in-the-works:

No One Tells You What to Expect

A downpour as you’re running down Massachusetts Street

in sandals that keep falling off in unexpected puddles.

Ice on power lines. The dying who won’t die,

then a single bluebird dead in your driveway.

The deadline or lost check spilling the orderly papers.

The part that isn’t made anymore for the carburetor,

or the sudden end of chronic sinus infections while lost

in a parking lot looking for where you parked the car.

Your best thinking won’t be enough to save your daughter

from a bad romance or your friend from leaving the man

she’ll regret leaving. Across town, in a quiet gathering

of maples, someone drops to her knees in such sadness

that even the hummingbirds buzz through unnoticed.

The dog you thought gone returns wet and hungry,

the phone call reports the CT scan is negative,

and your husband brings you a tiny strawberry,

the first or the last, growing in your backyard.

Life will right itself on the water when the right rocks come along,

so put down your paddle and let the bend tilt you

toward what comes next: the bottoms that fall out,

the shoes that drop, the wrong email sent while

a cousin you lost touch with decades ago calls,

his voice as familiar as the smell of pot roast

while that song you forgot returns like an old cat.

Expect to be startled.

Holding Tight To Bliss Road in a Time of Climate Change: Everyday Magic, Day 955

One of the wonders of this world are mountains of maples at the peak of fall foliage, and I was lucky enough to dwell among recently at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College.  The big picture mind-blowing expanses are all around, from a distance golden variegated hazes that upon closer range become crazy quilts of red, rust, orange, yellow, and green. But what really grabbed my heart was the more narrow and up close light in action of the trees and sky, especially when driving up and down curvy and lilting country roads.

The aptly named Bliss Road, near Montpelier, Vermont, is one of those, but so is John Fowler Road, just east of Plainfield, and several other roads that led me up mountain sides and across stretches of brilliance near Marshfield. I followed color and light through dizzying beauty that kept eclipsing itself after days of rain and clouds that showed a more color-saturated side of fall. Heading up one mountain and turning down a long road, supposedly a dead end although I didn’t reach the end of it, I lost the road to the leaves. It was Bliss Road no matter where I went, particularly on paths I walked throughout central Vermont. 

Coming home, I encountered this urgent and heart-breaking update of what many of us knew already but now see in stark contrast: “U.N. Says Climate Genocide is Coming. It’s Worse Than That.” It makes my jaunt through the ancient glories of maple tree nirvana seem like pure escapism, which, to some extent, it was. Also reading the New York Times article “Major Climate Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” brought me back to how endangered they and we are as well as how illuminated everything is.

There’s plenty to do on a personal, local, national, and global scale, and while the articles I cited share some of the big-picture needs and dangers, back home on the small scale, I’m realizing how I can no longer be silent when I encounter climate change deniers, figuring — as I did in the past — that eventually they’ll “get it,” because while they and all of us will, in horrendous ways that multiple human and more-than-human species suffering beyond what many of us imagine, it’s clearly past time to speak out.

My friend Lise on a blissful path at Goddard College

So I’m saying here that if you also love traversing blissful paths or roads — wherever that is for you — and want to keep marveling and moving through this beautiful life; if you love your or others’ kids and grandkids; if you believe in the sanctity of life, then let’s have these hard conversations, draw on real science and deep love of each other and life. Whatever we can do  for the big picture (writing congress people, joining and contributing to groups, supporting initiatives such as carbon taxes and other ways to make sure cooler heads and temps prevails) and for the intimate picture of our daily lives (reducing our carbon footprint, conserving water, diving into the hard dialogues with family or friends who deny what’s happening), we need to do for our endangered and illuminated lives.

Long live Bliss Road, and may we be wise and strong enough to keep walking it.

Rituals of Pause as the Big Rocks in the Jar: Everyday Magic, Day 950

“Your big rocks are the rituals of pause,” Dr. Neela Sandal told me a few weeks ago. I’ve been working with Neela for a few years to tunnel out (successfully too!) of some chronic health issues, and I had mentioned that I needed more rituals of pause through my day to check in with myself instead of checking off the next item on my endless list. I had also told him about the analogy of how you can only gets rocks, pebbles, sand, and water into a jar if you put in the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff to fill in the gaps. If you put the water in first, then the sand and pebbles, you’ll never get the rocks in.

What Neela, a marvelous integrative physician and founder of Atma Clinic, said rocked my world. Wait, what about all the things I need to do for my health — take supplements, swim and lift weights, rest, eat healthy food, get my ass to yoga class? “Those are the pebbles, Caryn,” he told me. As a person catapulted through my days by an overwrought sense of urgency  with the theme from the cartoon dog hero “Underdog” playing in the background (“Underdog will save the day!”), the idea of the big rocks being, well, just being blows me away.

Some of you may be raising your eyebrows and saying, “Just catching onto this now?” because you’re far more advanced as human beings than the ones of us too enmeshed as human doings, but hey, I’m starting to catch onto what I innately knew all my life. I was a genius at hitting the pause button and being with whatever the window had to show me about trees, clouds, and flitting robins in elementary school although it too often resulted in report card complaints about too much daydreaming.

Now I’m earnestly trying to be less earnest about the here and now.  I remember how, during the Right Livelihood Professional Training opening weekend, I shared with participants what I used to tell students in my English 101 composition classes when I started teaching at K.U. in 1986: “Pay attention. Expect nothing. Keep going.” I thought this just applied to  writing essays, but it obviously speaks to each moment as it comes. Not that I’m evolved enough to live there, but I’m making more space for the spaciousness of stepping outside of my mind’s eye of the world and into the world. Writing, good for so many things, is also good for returning to being: using our words to arrive where we already are.

Like right now when, on a high branch of a locust tree, 20 feet or so above my napping Honda CRV, and in time with Ulali singing “Mahk Jchi,” one of my favorite songs, a bird with a yellow breast calls, “chah chah chah.” A bee floats in  half circle below the hummingbird, dipping beak to feeder. A small leaf, saturated with sunlight, dips off the Osage orange tree. I pick up my mason jar of iced coffee, the big rocks of ice melted minutes ago, take a sip, and bow at the altar of this world.