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?

Lightening Up for the Solstice: Everyday Magic, Day 959

Tomorrow the world turns over: our shortening days stop in their tracks, and the light begins lengthening those days for months to come. Even the dreaded month of February, out there on the near horizon, will be far brighter light-wise as our long nights tuck into themselves.

At the same time, this is a year I’ve been lightening up, not so much weight-wise (although certainly warranted by all those height-weight charts). I’ve taken a year-long unpaid leave from Goddard College, a place I love immensely but after 64 consecutive semesters of teaching there or elsewhere, I was ready for a break. I’ve just completed over 25 gigs — readings, talks, and workshops — to promote Miriam’s Well, my new-ish novel in many states (KS, MO, OK, WI, VT, NE, MN) and states of being. In further evaluating the many ways I make a living — “What do you do, Caryn?” “Do you have an hour?” — I’ve edited out work that’s too weighty in proportion to how it fits my callings, health, sanity, and need to make some moolah. Although our family is still grieving and will be for some time, the death of my beloved  mother-in-law also brings a little more mercy and light. And through two years of healing (still in progress) with my integrative physician, Dr. Neela Sandal, puzzling through anxiety issues with a great therapist, and guidance from other supportive humans and forces of nature, I’ve leapt into considerably better health which, as we well know, informs all else in a life.

So I have a lot of reason and reality to sense so much more light, both that bright blur, like right now in the sky emerging, and the easier to lift and carry kind of lightness. The sky we live in and the sky that lives in us will keep bringing us many manner of weather, change, surprise, and mystery, and of course, there is great beauty and discovery for us to traverse in the rich darkness and weightiness of life too. But for now, as the darkness and heaviness lifts some, I’m swimming in gratitude which itself is another kind of lightness.

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.

From Your Alley to My Kitchen: Everyday Magic, Day 947

The last few days of July are truly Christmas for All in the Alleys. Because this is a college town with a whole lot of students, too-well equipped by their fretting parents with stuff they won’t use, and these students move out in a hurry when much of our rental housing turns over August 1 each year, you can shop the alleys for home and hearth this week. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for and I find it: a new vacuum, easy chair, throw pillows, or various electronic equipment which may or may not work (if broken, I return it to its alley).

Mostly, though, running the alleys means encounters with things I didn’t know I was looking for, such as new stools for our breakfast counter. The old stools, although painted and repaired numerous times, have largely disintegrated after 23 years of heavy use, one so much that we even turned it into a cat climbing tree. So when I saw big, well-made stools in an errant alley, home they went with me. They were peeling paint, dirty, a little wet from one of our only mini rains in months, and covered with spider webs, mud, and dust.

As I was scrubbing them, then after they dried, sanding and scraping them, I wondered if this was a stupid endeavor. After all, there’s Ikea just 40 minutes away with plenty of cool new stools, plus killer coffee and Swedish meatballs required for any shopper on a mission. Ever the optimist, I thought I could prepare them for painting in a jiffy, but that was far from true. There was also a crack in one of the wooden stats, but before I could talk myself out of this project, Ken showed up with wood glue, a drill, and those brace-holder thingies to repair the slat, so I kept scraping and sanding.

With Radio Bob doing my favorite weekly show, Trail Mix, in the background, I just immersed myself in the likes of Irish ballads and piercing folk tunes while whittling away specks of paint, smoothing edges, and trying not to gauge the wood too much. I have a lot of paint in our basement leftover from numerous projects and yearning to be put to use, but what was on my mind the most was the recent periwinkle and whatever color you would call light, bright blue-green delight my friend Pam and I used to paint the greenhouse this month.

Last night as the sun was going down, I painted those stools those colors, eventually needing to hook up a lamp via an extension cord, which didn’t really help me see what I was doing much better but gave me the illusion of not painting in the dark. I relied on hunches and lots of extra paint, figuring I would touch it all up this morning, but when I came out today to check on the chairs, I found them thoroughly painted with such a few drips and some opposing brush strokes.

There’s something immensely satisfying about adopting trash and training it to be something to park our butts on while we catch up on our days in between eating leftover white cherries and guzzling fizz water. These babies, caught fresh from the alley and reformed into pastel perches, will migrate to the kitchen, joining so much other recycled furniture, once hovering on the edge of destruction and now holding our books, tchotchkes, meals, and even us.