A Snake, A Wedding, and Faith: Everyday Magic, Day 972

Somewhere in Brazil a bunch of people stopped their car on a highway, got out, and signaled other drivers to hold off so that a very large snake could cross the road. When I saw the video, I was amazed at how calm and calming the humans and, to some extent, the snake were in doing what it took for the snake to arrive at the other side. It also made me happy to see members of my own species, known for how often we get it wrong when it comes to the more-than-human world, get it right.  Such moments help me re-ignite my faith in this world.

Which leads me to a wedding — not of anyone I know personally but of a writer I admire, Anne Lamott, who, three weeks after she got her Medicare card, married writer Neal Allen.  As she told the New York Times, the one thing she still wanted in life was a good marriage. At age 65, she got it.  Shortly afterwards, she tweeted, “So never, ever give up, because God is such a show off.”

There are things happening all the time that can tip us toward greater faith in what’s possible and what’s actually even happening, and most of which don’t involve big snakes or fabled weddings. Despite the horrors and heartbreaks, bad decisions, evil renderings, and apathy resulting in terrible suffering, there’s also this: small acts of goodness or big leaps into love. There’s the incessant smell of lilac all around me right now as I type on the porch, my own marriage giving me so much inspiration and strength for a long time, and a so breeze lifting and releasing the cedars and walnut trees. There’s new green and old green unfurling and a whole lot of bird song.

There’s also the baby snake I carefully tricked the cat into releasing from his mouth so that the snake could live (and live outside our house). Grace abounds, and believing in a better world helps us glimpse it, shepherd it across the road, or meet it at the altar.

The Power of Blossoms: Everyday Magic, Day 971

Emily Dickinson writes, “I started early — Took my dog.” In my case, I started late and took my croissant, and unlike Dickinson, I wasn’t looking for mermaids in the basement of the ocean or fleeing from the silver-tongued tide. Nope, I was savoring one flowering tree after another, that and buttery layers of flakey wonder.

Each spring, I hit the pause button on my life at some moment, and if I’m smart, many moments, and head out into the neighborhoods to worship at the fleeting faces of magnolia blossoms. Some weeks later, after the frost has zapped those magnolias brown-edged and fallen,  I mosey along the lilac. I’ve also done lily-of-the-valley walks because those tiny white bells hold whole worlds of exquisite joy. This year, with winter holding its ground far later than usual and a sluggish spring, everything exploded into blossom at once, so a few days ago, I parked the car near the Barker Street bakery, got my provisions, and headed out into the blossoming world.

Instead of a somewhat orderly procession of daffodils before tulips and magnolias before redbuds, this year, everything is showing off at once. Turn a corner and behold! Lilac is just starting beside a spread of tulips. Cherry trees are partying on high, one happy hand of pink piled against another. Grape hyacinth sings the song of its people below a bevy of flowering dogwood and against the backdrop of Rhododendron (what are you doing so far west, Appalachian flowers?). From the ground, covered with thousands of slips of Bradford pear paper petals, to the heavens, framed with interlocking purple, pink, and white, the world is blooming faster than we can comprehend.

It’s also changing wildly fast after winter’s long dormant stretch of snow, ice, gray skies, and sudden jolts down in temperature, all of which makes life seem more monolithic than it is.  What’s peaking today will be hollowing out in a week. What’s just opening its doors, flower by flower, will soon dissolve or fall away. That’s why I write and walk into this most springs: to acknowledge that yes, this is remarkable even if seasonal, and yes, we’re alive to bear witness to more than just the grief and insanity of the world.

Tomorrow, if I’m not an idiot, I’ll be the one walking slowly, phone in hand, to take pictures of what’s shining, to paraphrase poet Li-Young Lee, blossom to impossible blossom. I might even be crawling along the sidewalk to smell the lily-of-the-valley. Each bundle or spread or hidden conclave of flowers here, in all their power, demand no less.

Unexpected Graces: Everyday Magic, Day 970

Maybe it’s the late landing of spring, the convergence of personal history and life lessons, or just chaos and good timing, but I’ve been tripping into unexpected graces lately, small or big moments that surprise me with such joy, connection, beauty, even something akin to healing.

On our trip to Brooklyn, New York City, and New Jersey — aka the mothership for me — grace abounded, often like a slip of paper or wings at the edge of vision. The moment we emerged at a new subway stop for us in Brooklyn, staring blankly at the sun after eight hours of travel, backpacks and suitcase heavy, a kind sanitation worker walked over to me. “What you looking for, baby?” he asked. Sometimes it’s just tiny kindnesses that can steer a person the right direction.

Days later, sitting down with old family friends my brother and I hadn’t seen in 40-plus years, I felt enveloped in a bear hug of grace and gratitude, but then again, being with people who know you from before you were born can do that. Hugging my aunts hello, setting the table with my nephew, talking on the train with my brother were all imbued with a sweetness as well as so many conversations with family members, old friends, new pals, or strangers over Chinese food or bagels throughout that trip.

Back home, I found grace in the ground, digging in the soft dirt with my hands to make enough room for some pansies, and later hauling some trash from around the yard into the back of the pick-up truck, including a broken air-conditioner and lawn mower we’ve meant to get rid of for a long time. I also found grace in hearing from a long-lost friend, apologizing to someone I was a bit impatient with, laughing with a coaching client, saying some very hard things to someone without having them take off running, and listening to story after story about the lives of two friends who have died recently.

There’s many varieties of grace, such as the grace of the delicious when we shared exquisite desserts(no dairy, sugar, or grain) with dear friends at Cafe Gratitude in Kansas City. There’s the flowering grace of magnolias, out a month later than they were last year, smiling in their pink jackets all over town. There’s the  poetic grace of gathering at the river banks with an eclectic group of writers and naturalists for a reading celebrating the river, right in the middle of a fierce rowing competition erupting in cheers and the handing out of sandwiches.

I think of a moment at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, someplace we didn’t realize we were walking until we got there, our feet tired from days of putting on the miles. We climbed a steep hill, then sat on the winter-softened ground and looked toward the city. I held up a tiny hyacinth flower, thinking it would contrast nicely with the skyscrapers across the river, but what I see in the photo is what’s close up and arching over us: grace after grace after grace.

Driving Home the Full Moon: Everyday Magic, Day 969

There I was, looking for the rising moon and wondering why it hadn’t yet shown itself. Maybe it was  too early for moonrise or prairie fires just to the north of Hwy. 35, which I was driving from Emporia to Lawrence, were hiding the ceiling of the sky. So I kept driving and looking, hoping for the moon to catch up with me.

I was also simultaneously tired and exhilarated, in part because of the moon the night before keeping me up despite my “go-back-to-sleep-you-have-a-big-day-tomorrow” self-talk attempts. Even with the curtains of our bedroom closed, I could feel that big moon energy, making me want to get up and fry an omelette or read a book, but certainly not sleep.

It was the tail end of that big day — one that brought me meaning and joy, starting with visiting a wonderful poetry writing class at Emporia State University, where we talked about what real work was calling us and what truest words were singing through our writing. I had my first-ever professional studio photo shoot with the wonderful Dave Leiker, who brought me a surprising sense of peace while placing me in the middle of clamshell lighting. I ate gyros with one of my publisher-friends at the local brewery, then guzzled a whole lot of iced tea in the Granada Coffeehouse while revising a grant. I also got to talk deeply over Mexican food about land and literature with the current Kansas Poet Laureate, Kevin Rabas, who teaches at Emporia State, the wonderful creative writing chair, Amy Sage Webb, and a lovely young poet, Linzi Garcia, before giving a reading from Miriam’s Well.

Now I was driving 77 miles home, coming over a ridge to find a prairie fire dancing a line shaped like a question mark to my north, and then another kind of fire: the full moon, half-risen, raging orange, enormous on the eastern horizon.

The rest of the drive the moon rose fuller, slowly getting smaller as it got higher, turning from fire-orange to sherbet to peach to butterscotch to manila. I turned up my CD player, singing along with the whole score of “Godspell,” then rocking out to Kansas’s “Carry On, My Wayward Son” until, so appropriately, Sarah Vaughn’s “Moon River” aligned the moon, the music, the highway, and me.

Driving into the rising moon on an early spring night is a lot like standing outside on the first warm enough day when a sweet breeze blows through our beings and happily clears all the debris of winter and other life challenges, sadnesses, and heartbreaks. The more I drove with my good friend the moon lighting the way, the more I came home to how much I love this world.

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).