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).

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.

Surprise Lilies: Everyday Magic, Day 948

Here is a poem about this moment’s offering all around where I live. May this election day bring us lovely and happy surprises too.

 

Surprise Lilies


Green shots, pink ribbons

in the alley lining the dumpster

or the driveway around the broken mowers,

past moving out date, before school buses

in the open slash between the heat that levels us

and the storms on the next page of the horizon.

When you don’t know, when you’re lost,

when there’s nowhere to stand

there they are, never bent or expected.

They thrive on what you’ve forgotten about,

given away or never used.

They love fences but don’t need them,

petal in attention, but go on regardless.

They come on their own terms, a slip

of pink time writing life one quick note

that says, stop being so predictable,

go outside in the middle of the night

when the air is lush and almost cool, and look.

Remember all is changing, all is enough.

 

Thanks to Kelley Hunt for her photo.

Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017: Everyday Magic, Day 922

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.

The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range. 

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).

Solving the Koan

Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,

you can throw cold water on a alley cat

or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan

is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat

with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,

a koan isn’t a riddle,

a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,

but a cat and a fiddle

and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must

go haywire and be calm at once,

stare at a blank wall and contemplate

ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance

plays a part in it, but mainly

to solve a koan you must simply Be.

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.

****

Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,”  and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.”  Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.

Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.