The Journey – Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

The Journey

I am saddened by today’s news of the death of the inestimable Mary Oliver and am moved to honour her in my own way.

The first poem I learned by heart and one of the first of hers I encountered twenty-some years ago was The Journey. It spoke so powerfully to me of the way we each find our own way in the world. It gave me courage and encouragement to do the only thing you could do. I spoke it often and her voice became my own.

Over the years, I immersed myself in her poetry, always finding new ones to delight and surprise and challenge me. She used direct, accessible language, a hallmark for me of poems I love, and hers were a subtle and often not-so-subtle influence in my own writing. Her observations on the natural world were a doorway, as an urbanite, to a place I often longed to go; her words took me there. As she herself said, she “made a world out of words”.

When her death made the national and international news, my husband remarked how astonishing that someone who was not a rock star, nor a sports celebrity, should be so noticed and celebrated. And I replied, that’s because she is a poet who spoke for and to us all and will continue to do so. She did not end up simply having visited this world.

I am ever grateful for the legacy this gentle soul has left any who choose to read her work. What she created mattered and will live on. I bow in gratitude and appreciation.

Advertisements

Questions Before Dark – Jeanne Lohmann

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun’s midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?
I do appreciate poems that ask questions, especially ones that cannot be answered simply  but remain in my mind to challenge me, to inform my days, and especially now at the beginning of a new year. I hope you may find a question or two here that is meaningful to you, learning, as Rilke says, ‘to love the questions‘.
Has this day changed you? She asks us to consider this at day’s end and of course how could we not be altered, though it may not always seem so.
I love this one: Are the corners sharper or rounded off? When I am at peace with myself, I can feel the roundedness; sharper when I am feeling anxious.
Did you live with death? I do try to remember every day that I’m going to die; that death is certain though the time of death uncertain.
Make decisions that quieted? Sometimes yes, again those rounded off corners in my mind, unremarkable decisions in the course of an ordinary day that settle me.
Find one clear word that fit? Well, words are important to me so I give them a lot of thought and although I may not always find ones that fit, it gives me pleasure to search for them.
A pitch of absence, bewilderment that invites the possible? Ah yes, the uncertainty I often struggle with even though it holds possibilities unforeseen.
What did you learn from things you dropped and picked up and dropped again? I’m thinking here of things I learn, then forget, then relearn, sometimes repeating this many times until it becomes a new knowledge.
Did you set a straw parallel to the river, let the flow carry you downstream? This is meaningful to me as I hold the intention at the start of this year to let my days unfurl rather than rushing through them. I’m reminded of John O’Donohue’s succinctly eloquent poem: I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding. Yup, like that.

Hold Out Your Hand by Julia Fehrenbacher

Let’s forget the world for a while
fall back and back
into the hush and holy
of now

are you listening? This breath
invites you
to write the first word
of your new story

your new story begins with this:
You matter

you are needed—empty
and naked
willing to say yes
and yes and yes

Do you see
the sun shines, day after day
whether you have faith
or not
the sparrows continue
to sing their song
even when you forget to sing
yours

stop asking: Am I good enough?
Ask only
Am I showing up
with love?

Life is not a straight line
it’s a downpour of gifts, please—
hold out your hand

Hold Out Your Hand

The invitation of this poem is one I could not resist – may it be so for you.

To begin is the invitation to forget the world for awhile, to listen to the hush and holy of now. In your next breath, to begin your new story, a story we all need to write: You matter / you are needed. Take a moment to breathe that in if you will.

The poet reminds us we do not need faith for the sun to continue to shine, for the sparrows to continue to sing their song even when you forget to sing yours. Does it happen sometimes that you forget your song? stop asking: Am I good enough? This is the wrong question; ask instead she tells us, Am I showing up with love?

The final invitation is please – hold out your hand for the downpour of gifts that life offers us. Life as it meanders up and down, into pain as well as joy, never a straight line. So please, yes, hold out your hand and receive it all, be willing to say yes / and yes and yes.

And here is one of mine for the season:

In the Darkness

Darkness is a poem

and tastes like chocolate,

rich, dark, a slight bitterness

that satisfies yet invites more.

In the darkness, there is room

for everything that is hidden

to be safe, to come forward

and be received as it must.

When we learn to see the darkness

as clearly as we see the light,

we will taste more deeply

the bittersweetness of this life.

 

Praise Song by Barbara Crooker

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.
I am drawn to praise poems and this one seems particularly appropriate at this time of year, albeit early in November, the sunlight thinning, the crows though they are clothed in night, they do not / despair, still harshly calling to us in the chill air.
The poet invites us to admire the simple remnants of summer – the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls, / shells, the architecture of trees. To notice the dried weeds, the blue sky, the setting sun, the quilt of leaves / that covers the grass. Have you ever seen the fallen leaves as a quilt before? I hadn’t.
And finally to acclaim our crazy / fallen world, fallen as we have in these times, crazy for sure as darkness of all kinds gathers around us.
Yet it’s all we have, this broken, fallen world and it’s never enough though I hear those words not as despair but as a reminder to praise what we do have; there can never be too much praise, too much admiration for this world.
When we pause to admire the simple beauty of this dying season, we can find reason to praise what is there, to express our respect and gratitude for all of it.

 

Equinox – Richard Wehrman

The Garden releases its last
radiance, not as something failed,
but as its full reason for being: to give
continually, to its last bit of energetic being.
Its giving is its beauty. It is a smile,
it is the heart of love.

So the birdsong that surrounds me
is given, not away, but into the world.
It is given as rain, as sunlight, as snowfall
and autumn leaves. It falls on our ears
as what it is, with no deception,
the complete truth of being.

Even the smell of decay, drifting from
the deer, dead by the side of the road, says:
“This is what I am and no other. I do not
pretend to be. Even in death I speak
without deceit, even unto my flesh,
my very bones.”

Be tolerant of these songs,
my musings on the way these things are
For I cannot give up this Summer except by
giving myself as well, fully and completely,
into the praise of our mutual beauty,
our total loving of the World.

Equinox

It is past equinox of course but I responded viscerally to this poem when I read it.

I had recently read a piece by Parker Palmer (thank you Margaret) on the paradox of how the dying of the year in autumn on which we tend to focus also contains the “hope of a certain beauty”. That darkness is part of the wholeness of life, the natural cycles of seasons, the sowing of seeds of new life.

I appreciate the poet’s reminder that autumn is not a failure but a giving, Its giving is its beauty. It is a smile, / it is the heart of love. The birdsong, the rain, the sunlight and snowfall, all this comes to us as what it is, with no deception, / the complete truth of being. Even in death, This is what I am and no other. I do not / pretend to be.

And finally, I cannot give up this Summer except by / giving myself as well, fully and completely, / into the praise of our mutual beauty, / our total loving of the World. Can you feel the call to give yourself fully to this beautiful world, to praise the beauty that is part of the wholeness of life for all of us?

Let this poem be a reminder to give yourself away, to increase the beauty of this world. As the poet Wendell Berry says Every day you have less reason / not to give yourself away.

And now may I give you one of my own.

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.

 

 

 

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith by Mary Oliver

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green
stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
happening
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.

Little Summer Poem

One last summer poem in these last precious days of our shortest season, one that speaks of the unseeable, unhearable evidence of faith. And so, every summer, / I fail as a witness says Mary Oliver, to all that is happening all around, all of it / happening / beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum. Though in truth, she is one of the finest witnesses of the natural world to write of it.

Despite not seeing, not hearing the persistent growth, she tells us that still, / every day, / the leafy fields / grow taller and thicker. And isn’t it so? Look around at the leafy green ocean that summer has produced, the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body.

She invites the immeasurable, the unknowable, the mystery hidden in the dirt, for us to contemplate. In her inimitable style, she asks How could I look at anything in this world /
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart? /What should I fear? She speaks of faith in what we cannot see or hear without naming it while showing us in her words what faith can look like.

May this little summer poem touch your heart and show you what faith you need in this moment.

 

From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Already last month I was thinking of this poem, as I do every year as the peaches begin to ripen. I remember this brown paper bag of peaches purchased last summer at a local farmers’ market, even though they are not quite local but come from Niagara.
The poet takes us from the picking of this fruit to devouring, dusty skin and all …dust of summer, dust we eat. Can’t you just feel the soft warm fuzz of a peach in your hand? It really is a sweet dust, a taste of summer, of August.
Then it becomes like a prayer or a hymn, O, to take what we love inside, eating the shade, the sugar, the days, a communion with summer. This is no ordinary food as we taste the round jubilance of peach. I cannot eat a peach anymore without thinking of that phrase, the joyfulness of the experience in a taste. I have tasted peaches like that.
He reminds us that we live as if life will go on forever, as if death were nowhere / in the background. We will not always be here to swoon over peaches but we can live in the moment, from joy to wing to blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Ode to Lemons Michelle Courtney Berry

Today,
the sun-glazed
bag of lemons
adorning the white counter
became
in my imagination,
not a bag
grabbed hastily
from supermarket bins
overflowing
with fruit, pepper, and melon
but
rather
that each lemon
was
plucked
tenderly
from
a limestone grove
on the Coast of Amalfi,
where the salt-tinged air
is ripe with birdsong
and each
syrupy-sweet
lemony-goodness
is a fist-sized
delight
in my hands,
that
drops
into
a cradle of wicker and twine.

I pull
the mesh bag’s
netting loose,
as though everything
now requires reverence,
as though
I could honor the journey
of  hands –not my own—
hands
that brought
such
luscious
fruit to market
without
the slightest recognition.

My own hands twist
the golden orbs,
over
and
over
marveling
at their scented beauty.

My hands
were honored
in this way
by
these
heavenly
lemons,

as I sighed
in front of the kitchen window.

Ode to Lemons

Having just returned home with a bag of Meyer lemons last February, I read this poem more closely than I might otherwise have. It seemed directed at me then and now that our produce is so abundant, it came to me again.

Could it be that these lemons actually came from a limestone grove / on the Coast of Amalfi, / where the salt-tinged air / is ripe with birdsong? Already they hold a scent, even a sound that is beyond my kitchen.

How often do we honor the journey / of  hands even for a short moment of wonder, hands that have brought us this golden fruit? What might it be like to give reverence to the produce that we bring into our homes?

The poet speaks again of hands when she holds a lemon in her own, marveling / at their scented beauty and says her hands were honored by these lemons. I too have held these small Meyer lemons rolling them around on my skin to awaken their heavenly scent and feeling blessed by these tiny gifts.

Whatever sun-glazed fruit you hold in your hands in your kitchen this summer, take a moment to honor its journey to you and swoon at the scent. Already I’m thinking of peaches!

 

You Reading This, Be Ready by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life––

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

You Reading This, Be Ready

This poem has been my loyal companion on my solitary river walks these days, speaking the lines out loud (is that woman talking to herself??) as I go. The more I say these words, the more their comfort eases me and they sink into my bones.

Just that first line Starting here, what do you want to remember? carries me off into realms of wondering. The images of sight and scent and sound are all around me.

But it’s the next question that slows my walk: Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now? The answer of course, is no. And I’m hooked on the notion of ‘breathing respect’.

The repetition of starting here brings me back to this moment, just as each breath can do. The invitation to carry all that you want from this day, to keep it for life is too enticing to resist.

And the final question takes my breath away each time: What can anyone give you greater than now? What indeed! Always that reminder that there is nothing more than this, this moment, this now.

May the breathing respect you carry remind you that now is all we have, all we need.

 

 

Rapture – Linda Hogan

Who knows the mysteries of the poppies
when you look across the red fields,
or hear the sound of long thunder,
then the saving rain.
Everything beautiful,
the solitude of the single body
or sometimes, too, when the body is kissed
on the lips or hands or eyelids tender.
Oh for the pleasure of living in a body.
It may be, it may one day be
this is a world haunted by happiness,
where people finally are loved
in the light of leaves,
the feel of bird wings passing by.
Here it might be that no one wants power.
They don’t want more.
And so they are in the forest,
old trees,
or those small but grand.
And when you sleep, rapture, beauty,
may seek you out.
Listen. There is
secret joy,
sweet dreams you may never forget.
How worthy the being
in the human body. If,
when you are there, you see women
wading on the water
and clouds in the valley,
the smell of rain,
or a lotus blossom rises out of round green leaves,
remember there is always something
besides our own misery.
Rapture

Though I am not currently miserable, like all of us I have my moments. And it’s at times like that I need to be reminded as Hogan says there is always something / besides our own misery. 

She speaks so eloquently of the mysteries of poppies and rain, of beauty, the pleasure of living in a body. And then she presents us with an astonishing possibility: that the world may one day be haunted (haunted!) by happiness and people finally are loved.  This reminds me of Day Dream by A.S.J. Tessimond which you might also like.

Rapture, beauty may seek you out as you sleep. Listen she says, There is / secret joy, / sweet dreams you may never forget. Pay attention, she is telling us. These things are real and close at hand if we open our eyes and ears. How worthy the being in the human body – how often do we truly remember this?

May rapture and beauty seek you out. May you be open to receive it.

 

And here is another spring poem of mine from a couple of years ago that describes my annual experience. And now the leaves have truly arrived; perhaps it is even summer!

Hello Spring

Every year I plan to be there

at that exquisite unveiling

when the tender green leaves,

so tightly wrapped, open themselves

to the waiting new-made world.

 

Impatiently I watch for signs,

carefully observing the nascent buds

on the winter-bare branches,

biding my time

for they cannot be rushed.

 

Yet each year, there comes a morning

when I look to find yesterday’s small gift

unwrapped, tiny viridescent leaves

unfurled, waving their diminutive hands

in greeting: hello spring,

hello Janice, sorry we arrived

while you weren’t looking;

we just couldn’t wait.