Instructions for living a life by Mary Oliver

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I’m not sure if this is considered a poem or simply a quote but it has always been one of my favourites. Today is the first anniversary of Mary Oliver’s death. She left us with so many exquisite poems and this one seems, to me, to capture so well the essence of how she lived and what she wrote.

So here is a small tribute to her based on this poem.

Pay Attention. How else will you know what is going on around you?

You must be present to life each day as it is, notice it, observe, especially

the smallest details – this grasshopper, the ocean’s shine, the green

fists of the peonies, the daily presentations. Let us not become blasé about

this remarkable life.

Be astonished. We can become unimpressed with what we have seen

and experienced many times, becoming indifferent to both the beauties

and the horrors the world shows us over and over. It is only right, she tells

us, to be amazed and impressed by everything, especially (again) the small

details. To be filled with awe, lost for words.

Tell about it. For a poet like herself, Oliver knew how to tell us what she

saw, how to put words to what might seem indescribable. Yet I think she

meant not only that we should write poetry but that we should speak of all

that is remarkable about this world, to share the wonders we see and hear

with others as she so generously did with us.

Mary Oliver said all that and so much more in 7 words.

Are you not astonished?

With Intention by Janice Falls

And what will you do

with this unspent year,

these 365 never-before days

unspooling from the wheel as it turns,

neither stopping nor hurrying

despite your self-driven pace?

Will you greet each one

with heart wide open,

seeing all the beauty of this world

as well as its infinite sadness,

the madness and grief woven into

the achingly exquisite texture of a day?

Will you pause…

in your haste for each busy day to be done

for the next special event to arrive,

so that you might taste any moment now

be it bitter, fresh, rich or bland

and let it roll across your tongue

so that you truly know it?

Each new day will never again be here.

Greet it without clinging or aversion

or worse without noticing,

as intimate and near to you as your breath.

Unwrap each day as the gift it is;

be surprised with delight or with disappointment

but do not look away too long

for this one will not come to you again.

I wrote this poem some years ago after being asked if I knew of any poems for the new year. Though there are several, I didn’t know any at the time so I put pen to paper to see what would come and here you have it.

I think, as I read it now, that I was writing what I needed to hear, to slow down, to pay attention, to be more present to each moment. It felt important to speak not only of the beauty of this world but of the sorrow, the delight and the disappointment – life as it is.

As we enter not only a new year but a new decade of possibilities, may you treasure each day as it comes, each new day that will never again be here.

Don’t Hesitate by Mary Oliver

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
I was taken with this short prose poem by Mary Oliver, one I had not met before until my friend Laura shared it. Now I want to share it with you.
It is true, in my experience, that joy is often sudden and unexpected, fleeting even. And that too often we let it slip away or hesitate to accept its sweetness, so I love this simple advice:  don’t hesitate. Give in to it. Give in to joy – is that not a radical thought in dark times, something to take to heart?
As she says, we often lack wisdom and kindness and much in this world has been and will be destroyed for which we cannot atone. Still, life has some possibility left.  Such wise advice that joy may be life’s way of fighting back against all the sorrow – that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. Because sometimes, things do happen that cannot be bought or won or even earned.
She reminds us that whatever it is, most likely you will notice it in the instant when love begins. And not, I would add, even necessarily a new love, just those moments when love raises its head and begins again, and again.

Her final lines tell it like it is: Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.  This is profound wisdom – there is an abundance of joy in the world, joy enough to feed us all if we allow and share it. We must not horde joy for fear there will only be crumbs. Don’t hesitate to embrace each moment of possibility. Give in to it every chance you get!

And one more quote from a poem I think you will appreciate: The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, / dies young. From Morning Poem by Anne Sexton (thanks Lisa for the reminder).

  

Praise What Comes by Jeanne Lohmann

Surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise
talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps
you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,
finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another
ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?
This poem, in itself surprising as unplanned kisses, asks us to praise those things that come into our life unbidden – all you haven’t deserved, oh my, could we even begin to catalogue that! Your body’s immoderate good health, regardless of its present state, quiet intervals though they may be rare for you, books, always books – they are definitely my food and my hunger, the coming of night, walking at the end of day. All these and more you can list endlessly for yourself.
Praising these for practice – the easy stuff, the things we love and want to remember, to celebrate – a practice so that you might arrive at the place of praising grief and the wrongs you never intended, the inevitable part of life that comes along with joy, the other side of the coin. This we must give thanks for also.
I love her questions (to which there may be no answers). Yes, I have loved; no, I haven’t finished my task in the world – I’m only beginning to understand what it may be; I have learned my own name for the God of my understanding. And yes, I believe I have caught the smallest glimpse of the holy at those intersections, the boundaries where one life began and another ended.
All of this is worthy of praise, the ragged edges of pain and the talk with just about anyone. I hope this is true for you too, that you will always sing the praises for what comes into your life.

Some October by Barbara Crooker

Some October, when the leaves turn gold, ask
me if I’ve done enough to deserve this life
I’ve been given. A pile of sorrows, yes, but joy
enough to unbalance the equation.

When the sky turns blue as the robes of heaven,
ask me if I’ve made a difference.
The road winds through the copper-colored woods;
no one sees around the bend.

Today, the wind poured out of Canada,
a river in flood, bringing down the brilliant leaves,
broken sticks and twigs, deserted nests.
Go where the current takes you.

Some twilight, when the clouds stream in from the west
like the breath of God, ask me again.

Some October

Well, it’s October and the leaves are turning gloriously gold. And how would you answer if you were asked if I’ve done enough to deserve this life / I’ve been given. Have I done enough? Will I ever have done enough? And is it enough to deserve this life just because it has been given; not because of what I do but who I am?

Sorrows and joy, wonder and grief, Mark Nepo and, still the scales balance, Jane Hirshfield. Joy enough to unbalance the equation. This has been my experience though it took me half my lifetime to realize it.

Ask me if I’ve made a difference. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately – days when I fear I have not; days when I know I have, as we all have  whether for better or not, but a real difference simply by our presence here on this earth. And as the poet says, no one sees around the bend. Who knows how your life has touched another in ways you may never come to understand?

The wind blows, stripping leaves, twigs, nests – unstoppable, beyond our control. Go where the current takes you she advises. Life will take us places we cannot determine despite our insistence on trying to steer the ship. Yet we can go with the current, not passively but by choice, with clear intent.

The final ask me again makes me realize that I am as deserving of this life I have been given as you are, as we each are. You have only to look at the clouds, the blue sky, the copper-colored woods to understand this, to know this is the life you have been given.

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Language by Hannah Stephenson

If you stand at the edge of the forest
and stare into it
every tree at the edge will blow a little extra
oxygen toward you

It has been proven
Leaves have admitted it

The pines I have known
have been especially candid

One said
that all breath in this world
is roped together

that breathing is
the most ancient language

Ancient Language

I’ve chosen this poem from the anthology Poetry of Presence for two reasons. First is its simple elegance of imagery to convey what the poet imagines breath to be. I loved the notion that trees at the edge of the forest will will blow a little extra / oxygen toward you. Have you noticed that about trees? The poet even says Leaves have admitted it, thereby proving this is true.

What strikes me especially is the idea that all breath in this world / is roped together, an image of that interconnection of our being which we know about but forget. And finally, that breathing is / the most ancient language, the first sound before words. That just feels so true to me.

The second reason is that the editors of this anthology later invited people to write a poem inspired by one we had read. This is my response and it is included in the online anthology, Beginning Again.

BreathTaking

The sacred language of the breath

has no words:

a speechless entry

into the body, a tidal connection

with all that is,

the language we were born into,

the last silent word at our death.

 

It is the poetry of call and response:

inhaling news of the world,

exhaling delight and despair,

inhaling stories of life and death,

exhaling our own narratives

in sound no more than a whisper.

 

With each breath we take

life is poured into every cell,

announcing our presence

without ever saying a word.

Janice Falls

 

 

Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Small Kindnesses

I often think about small kindnesses, the simplicity and ease of them. How they are not as rare as they may seem when you stop to notice. But to put them together in a poem, now that’s a kindness in itself. My thanks to my lovely friend Margaret who first alerted me to this treasure.

The poet gives us such ordinary examples that I think we can all relate to: people pulling in their legs to let you by, saying ‘bless you’, picking up spilled lemons (or anything that rolls across the floor when dropped!). Mostly we don’t want to harm each other. It’s true, despite apparent evidence to the contrary in the news, we do not wish harm.

To say thank you for the cup of hot coffee, smile and be smiled at. To be called honey at the diner, for the driver to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far / from tribe and fire. The news, what we mainly hear, is divisive, separating us from one another, our tribe, our humanity. These gestures draw us together around the fire, small daily communities of connection.

Only these brief moments of exchange – these small kindnesses are available to us in every moment when we pay attention to our words and actions, to those of others around us. She tells us we make these fleeting temples together when we act and speak with kindness and it is their everydayness, their simplicity that draw us together, tiny prayers for living life well.

Go ahead – you first.

Blessing for the Brokenhearted – Jan Richardson

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
—Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound,
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still,

as if it trusts
that its own
persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us
nonetheless.

http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/02/10/a-blessing-for-the-brokenhearted/

Grief, as I have so often said, is a natural part of our lives, an expression of the love we have for those who have died and of what we feel for the loss of everything that changes, that ends.

Poetry is what can give us language and voice for the grief that life offers us and which we must accept whether we want to or no.

To read, or better yet, hear spoken, a poem that captures some essence of your own experience is to feel the relief of being known, if only for a moment, a moment that can be returned to time and again.

This poet has written many blessing poems (The Cure for Sorrow); this remains one of my favourites. Written after the sudden death of her young husband, it is eloquent in its expression of brokenheartedness without drowning in despair or sentimentality.

I so appreciate the opening lines of the first two stanzas, Let us agree, and Let us promise. She invites the reader into her world which may also be one’s own. She turns away from the conventional tropes of pain making us stronger or that time will heal. Have you ever been offered such inadequate, even offensive, advice?

Perhaps for now – just in this moment, we can marvel / at the mystery /  of how a heart /  so broken /  can go on beating. Is it not a mystery that this is so when it does not seem possible? More than that, she suggests that it is as if the heart knows the only cure for love  / is more of it. For truly, we do not stop loving someone just because they have died.

She offers the possibility that the heart’s sole remedy /  for breaking is to love  / still, that it is as if the heart trusts /  that its own /  persistent pulse /  is the rhythm /  of a blessing /  we cannot /  begin to fathom /  but will save us /  nonetheless. Note she is offering a remedy, a healing not a cure; this is the medicine of poetry.

If you are or have been brokenhearted, I invite you to speak this graceful poem aloud to yourself. Notice how your heart goes on beating, how you go on loving because you cannot do otherwise even in your grief.

 

 

From Which It All Began – Bernadette Miller

Tell me, what
would you do today
if you knew your life
to be a celebration
of this world?

Would you stop
to gather sunlight
dropping soundlessly
upon pines
beyond your window pane?

Would you court
dreams too wide
for the container
of consciousness?

Would you linger
in the terrible beauty
of uncertainty
as if the fullness of the world
depended upon your presence?

Would you cast your hopes
upon possibilities that abide
only in departure?

Would you become the motion
of your song,
losing itself in overtones
of delight
or despair
and returning, finally,
to the stillness
from which it all began?

From Which It All Began

Oh I do love the questions, most especially the ones that cannot really be answered but cause my mind to reflect and ponder. Tell me, what / would you do today / if you knew your life / to be a celebration / of this world? My life as a celebration of this world – what an extraordinary concept and yet, is this not true for each and every one of us? Knowing that, what will I do today? When I can hold this understanding in my heart, moving forward is eased, even when life feels difficult.

Would you stop / to gather sunlight / dropping soundlessly / upon pines / beyond your window pane? Gathering sunlight (I had never stopped to consider its soundlessness), especially these brief bursts today, is necessary and important whether literal or the sunlight of connection with those around us.

Would you court / dreams too wide / for the container / of consciousness? To court, to appeal to our dreams, to invite their expansiveness which our mere consciousness cannot hold – is this not an alluring invitation to accept? What might these dreams, nighttime or waking, reveal?

Would you linger / in the terrible beauty / of uncertainty / as if the fullness of the world / depended upon your presence? Ah yes, the terror and the beauty of uncertainty, the invitation to stay longer rather than draw back from this imperfect and unpredictable world. To linger, as if the fullness of the world / depended upon your presence! What if that were true, that your presence increases the fullness of this world? How could it not?

Would you cast your hopes / upon possibilities that abide / only in departure? How are we really living if we are always drawing back, fearing the unknown as well as the known, if we are moving away from, rather than toward, what life is offering?

Would you become the motion / of your song, / losing itself in overtones / of delight / or despair / and returning, finally, / to the stillness / from which it all began? What is the motion, the movement, of your song, the one containing both notes of delight and of despair? And finally we return to the stillness from which it all began, the still point within which we can find ourselves when our motion rests.

Tell me, what / would you do today / if you knew your life / to be a celebration / of this world?

 

 

Camas Lilies by Lynn Ungar

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”
Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
I was captured by this poem from the first time I read it. Despite the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, these lilies do not grow in our part of the world, I can envision them in all their glory. Besides, we have our own wildflowers that grow in such abundance – tiny blue starflowers, deep purple violets, even the extravagant orange day lilies.
After the opening line from the Bible (Matthew 6:28-29), inviting us to contemplate these flowers, Ungar creates such a strong visual image with the blue banks of camas opening / into acres of sky along the road. When she speaks to the longing to lie down / and be washed by that beauty, I recognize the longing I feel at times to submerge myself in nature’s aesthetic gifts. I know nothing of the usefulness of these flowers and no, it does nothing to diminish the desire to lose myself in their beauty.
And then her unexpected question: what of your rushed / and useful life? Well yes, what of it indeed? Are we not often rushing to be productive? Imagine setting it all down for a time, leaving this note: “Gone / to the fields to be lovely. Be back / when I’m through with blooming.” Such an invitation to immerse oneself in beauty, to become beauty – can you imagine??
These flowers, unneeded and uneaten, continue to exist even without our attention. Meanwhile, Even in sleep your life will shine. So we, too, continue to exist and our work matters, is useful. But what matters most, I believe, is that we take the time to stop and open ourselves to this wild, transient beauty around us.
She ends with the remainder of the quote from Matthew, a reminder that it is not the material things of our lives that matter most, that nothing can match the value of these wild and glorious blossoms.
So I invite you to leave a note one day this summer – literally – “Gone / to the fields to be lovely. Be back / when I’m through with blooming.” Then go and be lovely, let yourself bloom.
And don’t forget summer solstice, our longest day, tomorrow, Friday June 21. Let yourself be washed by the beauty.