We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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Mary Oliver left her body this past week, on January 17, 2019. The poet who spent a good deal of her life musing about death has finally experienced it firsthand. I believe she was ready to go and find out what’s on the other side of the veil.

Some have written of her work in less than kind terms, as is always the case when a creative person becomes famous. But for the many fans of her poetry across the world, Mary Oliver remains a beloved commentator of the human heart, keen observer of the natural world, and philosopher of life on planet Earth.

I first became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in my early thirties. I purchased her book New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston), at a poignant moment in my life when her words resonated deeply in my soul. That was over twenty years ago.  Since then, I’ve had certain periods when poetry took a prominent seat in my everyday and I’d pull out her volume anew. Her poems never failed to inspire and affirm my experience, as old and beloved friends usually do.

In this week’s New York Times articles about her death, journalists compared her style of nature poetry to Walt Whitman and even Thoreau and Emily Dickinson—she kept good company. But Oliver was fully present in our time, having lived through the majority of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Yes, her overarching themes were about the dynamic relationship between nature and human beings, and she mostly used first person point of view.  In the poetic tradition, the personal I is the most effective way to carry meaning to the reader. In a world full of artifice, egoism, arrogance and materialism, Oliver was a voice of sanity, reason and heart. Her keen observations were unflinching as she deftly described and questioned our human experience in the face of vast and unexplainable forces. Her voice was at once tender and unsentimental, reminding us of the importance of nature within our human experience.

In these days of ever increasing technology, artificial intelligence, and furiously increasing capitalism which by now is threatening the very existence of life on Earth, Mary Oliver’s deceptively simple, clear-eyed verse is more needed than ever. In her poem The Sun (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she asks,

have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

In her poem The Ponds (New and Selected Poems, 1992) she marvels at the perfection of the wild lilies growing at the edges of the ponds near her home. She writes

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half-nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Oliver remains a master of metaphorical poetry. A familiar pattern in her work is to first give the reader gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, and then deftly weave them within the framework of the human experience. I know of no other poet who uses this technique so seamlessly and succinctly. She simultaneously marvels at nature, wonders about the divinity who created it all, and asks us how to reckon with the unfathomable mystery that is our life, our planet, our home. Here is one of my favorite poems,
The Summer Day (House of Light, 1990).

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

In our present, highly chaotic and anxious times, reading Oliver’s calm, forthright and clear-eyed poems brings a sense of grounding, peace and sanity to our souls. Much like meditation and walks in the woods (for those fortunate enough to have woods nearby in which to walk), her poems remind us to be present, to breathe deep, and to be awake to the wonder of life inherent here on our beloved Earth. It is more challenging than ever to maintain sanity in such a world, but Oliver reminds us, through unerringly clear vision, of why we must do so. In her famous poem In Blackwater Woods (American Primitive, 1983) she writes,

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
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 let it go,
to let it go.

On an ordinary Thursday in January, 2019, Mary Oliver let it go. She let go of the world after holding it against her bones, caressing it ever so lovingly, so tenderly.  I am sure I speak for many others when I say how very grateful I am to her for holding up such a compassionate and clear mirror so we all may see ourselves and our planet reflected within it.

 

Help Wanted: Writer

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I have the audacity to call myself a writer. With my confidence boosted by my recent graduation from university summa cum laude, and a freshly minted minor in professional writing and a new sense of the possible, I’m ready to begin the job search. Oh boy.

So I do what any respectable college grad would do, I go online. One hour on LinkedIn leads to several rabbit holes and job boards. Before I know it, I’m on Indeed, signing up for job alerts to be conveniently delivered to my inbox. The alert—Writer.

The next day, I receive email alerts from my new friends at Indeed. The subject line: “770 jobs for writers” naturally catches my attention. I click the bait and start scrolling. As anyone who has an English degree and desire for paid work knows, there are nearly as many descriptions of writer as stars in the heavens. I read job postings for the following positions (this is the sound-byte version):

Technical writer—underwriter for insurance company—grant writer—proposal writer—software writer/engineer—advertising copy writer—marketing department web content writer—visual storyteller for another website’s marketing department—and that was in the first ninety seconds of scrolling. Lesson learned, I realize that being a writer means a lot of things to a lot of people. Sometimes it’s tough to remember I’m living in the era of hyper-technology, where bots are the first line of defense for actual, live humans that I have faith exist, somewhere.

Being a person who thinks of writing as an avocation, career, passion and creative undertaking, it’s a bit of a disappointment to see how misconstrued and misrepresented the term has come to be in our post-post modern world. We are at the point where pretty much anyone who knows how to type (on a device of any size) can call themselves a writer and get away with it. And while they may be technically correct (no doubt some dictionary definition of writer states “a person who writes words down somewhere”), to my mind, the term writer has much deeper connotations. It’s like a person who can bang out a simple tune on a guitar calling himself a musician. Or someone who opens a can of chili beans and microwaves them with a tortilla and a slice of cheese calling herself a cook. The nuance seems to be lost.

Back to the job search. Clearly, asking the Indeed bot to search for a word as generic as writer isn’t the most effective way to look for one’s dream job. I need a better strategy. So I dive into websites that showcase people doing interesting things with their lives, in fields that sound promising. After a couple of hours, I produce a list. It looks like this:

Categories of Interest

Social innovation, social entrepreneurship, human-centered design

Mentoring, coaching, facilitation, teaching

Leadership

Advocacy

Collaboration

Design Thinking

Governance

Impact Investing

Measurement & Evaluation

Organizational Development

Philanthropy & Funding

Scaling

Technology

These words appeared from searches stemming from the term global movement of change makers. That’s in my wheelhouse: global change, systems change, creating the new world that so many of us long for, and working towards making the dream of a sustainable, compassionate world into our global reality. The tricky part is, there’s no drop down menu of options that includes those words, sadly enough. The bots are artificially intelligent and can’t possibly understand a person like me who doesn’t fit into neat categories or even sectors. People like me have it harder than those graduates who have an easy answer to the question “what’s your degree in?” They can smile and say, “Bachelor of science in Computer Information Systems” or “Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice” and just about everyone immediately gets it. Business Administration majors are numerous, and so are jobs for them right out of school.

That’s not the case for us English majors and minors, however. People seem both intrigued and confused, or worse, slightly arrogant, once you confide that you hope to get a paid job as a writer. Their lips curl ever so slightly, their eyes glassy, and they’ll suddenly need to be somewhere else five minutes ago. What is it about the English language that so intimidates people? A lot of things, as it turns out. Take the average university English department, for example. Within that one department lurk scholars of many English stripes—literature, linguistics, composition and technical writing, creative writing, film and screenwriting, poetry, children’s literature and even graphic novel experts. Within those categories one can find even narrower fields of scholarship, like experts in medieval English manuscripts, 17th century Romantic poetry, or 20th century film noir genres. Specialization is the key to success in higher education. Where does that leave us multipotentialites?

In a world full of marketers, advertisers, techies, financial managers and engineers, it can feel like those of us who are passionate about using words creatively, with heart and soul, for the purpose of inspiring people to think about the world and what we are doing to it, are traveling a singularly lonely road. However, creative writers are a tenacious bunch. When you’ve got something that you feel is important to say, you can’t give up. You can’t let technology bots and content manipulators get you down. You just keep listening, and writing stuff down. The bus patron’s casual conversation with the bus driver on the commute home might just become your next blog post.

With Highest Praise

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In just a few more days, I will graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science degree. The culmination of my higher educational journey has truly been a long and winding road. In fact, it began more than thirty years ago.

On December 14, 2018, I will sit among hundreds of other students in the Denver Coliseum, and listen to President Janine Davidson and others give inspirational speeches to our graduating class of 2018. Then, I’ll get in the queue with the rest, and wind my way up to the stage, as the announcer calls out my name, “Leigh Jardine, Summa cum Laude!” I’ll shake the Department Chair’s hand and receive my diploma holder. I’ll walk down the stairs, giddy, and proudly, in my full dignity, walk back to my seat as the rest of my class takes their turn doing the same.

In that moment, when the announcer calls my name to the crowd of thousands of people who have come to witness our graduation from university, I will realize an achievement that I had given up on long ago. For me, this commencement ceremony will be unlike any other I’ve experienced in life. It marks the public witnessing of my finishing, with highest praise, a journey of learning, growing, and accomplishing a goal that had eluded me for many years.

It seems like little in our modern culture is taken very seriously, or given much respect. The cynicism and practice of “dissing” others is a very real disease of society that has infected people through popular culture in a myriad of insidious ways. For many in western cultures, getting a bachelor’s degree is no more important or special than making it through high school—a means to an end, whether that is a decent-paying job or the ticked box when applying to graduate school. I know there are plenty of young people who only want to “be done” with their academic career so they can get out and start making money, and living a “real life” as opposed to the unreal life they led as an undergrad. My own response to that line of thinking now is incredulous.

Now into my sixth decade of living on Earth this time round, being a university student has been a profound joy. Especially because of the wonderful, self-designed major program I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, I have had the delicious freedom to pick and choose the majority of courses I took. When some piece of the plan I’d set up with my advisor didn’t feel like the right fit, I’d go back to the drawing board and find a different course or set of courses that did. In fact, there’s a word for students like me: Multipotentialites.

According to the website Puttylike, a multipotentialite is “an educational and psychological term referring to a pattern found among intellectually gifted individuals. [Multipotentialites] generally have diverse interests across numerous domains and may be capable of success in many endeavors or professions; they are confronted with unique decisions as a result of these choices.”

The day I learned that what I’d struggled against my entire life, believing the socially-normative story that people like me are just losers who can’t get it together long enough to “make something of ourselves,” actually had a name and was recognized by some as a positive personality trait, was a turning point in my life. It was true, I’d never been able to stick with one job or career path for more than a few years before getting bored or burnt out, and then I’d begin the process of finding the next new thing to throw my creativity and curiosity into full-speed. For years I thought this was due to a serious character flaw, perhaps owing to my Gemini astrological sun sign, or maybe some dark, undiagnosed psychological problem I’d never been able to overcome. Then, sitting in a room full of other students and professors for a course on promoting our Individualized Degree, we were collectively enlightened to the fact that we weren’t losers or lame-beaus at all, but that we were, in fact, a bunch of cool Multipotentialites!
I went home feeling extraordinarily gratified that afternoon.

My bachelor’s degree is unique. It’s titled “Creative Arts, Women and Nonprofit Studies,” with a minor in English Rhetoric, Composition and Professional Writing. (The minor was already a thing; fortunately I didn’t need to invent that too.) The wonderful irony of me, Leigh Jardine, studying English as my minor, after being a writer my whole life and loving the English language with all its crazy wackiness and illogical frustrations—has been sheer pleasure.  Plus, most of the English professors whose courses I took are my kinda peeps—serious about learning, enthusiastic about English, words, and nerdy about the finer details of grammar, style guides, proper citations, annotated bibliographies, and the history of our absurd and wonderful mother tongue. It was gratifying to be among peers who loved the study of words and how they fit together into coherency.

We’ve all watched celebrities as they stand up at awards ceremonies, reeling off long lists of names, to thank all the folks along the way who helped them achieve their dream of fill-in-the-blank. We all know how tiresome that can be for the rest of us. But, in this moment of near-completion of my personal dream, I completely empathize with why they make everyone suffer through those five-minute-long-thank-you speeches. Nobody accomplishes their dreams on an island. We do it in rowboats, as teams in flow. I have many fine rowers to thank during the past eight semesters at MSU Denver.

The past two and a half years of being a student again have been enlightening in so many ways. I’ve learned a great deal about Millennials, intersectionality, racism, feminism, sexism, and many other isms. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of why higher education is so valuable for the upliftment of our society. I’ve come to greatly admire the work that many dedicated people are doing to lift up those on the margins in our communities and around the world. And, importantly, I’ve come to view the world we live in through a broader lens than I had before. My perspective has widened and deepened as I’ve come to view people in a more humane way than ever before. We are all doing what we can to survive under very chaotic circumstances in our world. I am fully aware of my privilege to be able to study in a peaceful city, to have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear and to have a warm, cozy apartment I can afford. I’m fortunate to have my beloved daughters living nearby. I’m fortunate to be able to take a reliable bus downtown to campus each day and back home each evening. And I am privileged to possess an American passport. There are far too many in the world who have none of these things, and are suffering greatly in ways I cannot even begin to fathom.

I will be looking up when I stand to receive my diploma. I will also be looking straight ahead toward the future. Right now I honestly don’t know what I’ll be doing with my life in a year’s time. But at this moment, in the middle of December of 2018, in the smackdab middle of my life, I’m feeling fine with beginner’s mind. I don’t have to know, only to trust that I’m just exactly where I’m supposed to be, shining as brightly and showing up as bravely as I can.