We need Mary Oliver more than ever

mary-oliver-though-i-play-at-the-edges-of-quote-on-storemypic-02689
www.storemypic.com

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

black and blue plastic pen non top of black covered notebook
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

The Wild Ride of November

 

Get_ass_out_vote
Art by @jrbrook, #GoVote

What a wild ride we are on! It’s unimaginable to me that anyone in the United States wasn’t paying attention to the midterm elections held last week. However, I know that plenty of folks really could care less what happens in Washington D.C., or in their state or local governments.

In these times, I am continually reminded that what’s important to one person is not important to the next. The reasons for this phenomenon are complex—I’m not even going to pretend to be able to answer that one intelligently. I notice it all the time, from news reports to overheard conversations, from classmates’ observations to professors’ lectures, and of course, via the dreaded social media. Our differences are becoming ever more etched in relief, and it’s a constant practice to remember, and also focus on, our similarities. How can one species called homo sapiens be at such incredible odds with itself? And, even more importantly, how can we reconcile all our seemingly vast differences in order to create the new world that so many of us long for?

Last week. Last week and the preceding weeks leading up to the midterm elections were, in a word, frenetic. They were also anxiety-producing and crazy. Candidates’ campaigns reached unprecedented levels of delirium, with a slight edge of hysteria over the weekend before Tuesday’s polls opened.  By late Monday, I was deleting emails hourly; on Tuesday morning I received dozens of emails imploring me to GO VOTE!! Did I have a plan for voting? Did I have or need a ride to get to the polling place? I wasn’t going to forget to vote, was I? Forget?? How would that even be a thing in 2018? I wondered, as I hit delete, delete, delete. Then there were text messages—Support! Go do it! Knock on people’s doors! Text! Above all, Show UP, for Goodness Sake!! Our democracy depends on YOU. The Blue Wave is coming, if you show up and Do The Right Thing.

A super-sized dose of responsibility was heaped upon each and all of us on November 6th. We were hammered by hundreds of organizations to do our citizen’s duty and exercise our RIGHT to vote for the candidates and ballot measures and amendments of our choice. The thing is, it’s not so easy to get a handle on just what exactly we’re for and what we’re against. Watching mainstream media ads certainly won’t help anyone understand the issues or get to the truth of what the candidates stand for. We need a different system, and a whole lot more civic education, period.

Americans know we are collectively living through an age of disinformation, misinformation, false information, and just plain too much information. Some days I feel like everybody and their brother and sister are jumping on the bandwagon and standing up shouting at the crowd. Only by now, the crowd is made up of hundreds of millions in America alone, not to mention the billions of other people around the world who are also watching and listening to the craziness. Metaphors become meaningless against the sheer tsunami of voices competing for our attention on a 24/7 basis.

About that Blue Wave? Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic, “A “blue wave” that is widely decided, in the course of a day, to be neither blue nor a wave: Here is one challenge of reporting in metaphor. And here is a reminder as well that, at this particular moment in American life, metaphor might be all we have.”

Words matter. Or do they? It depends on whose words, at what moment they’re uttered or written, and also, on who’s listening. As a writer, I struggle with making meaning and sense, with writing thoughts that have substance, with choosing words that cause people to reflect, ponder, and consider things that they hadn’t before. Any serious writer acknowledges that it’s difficult, tedious work. Writers attempt to convey, through small symbols on the page (either physical or virtual) what is inside their mind and  heart, then offers it to the world in hopes of gifting the others with something inspiring, humorous, moral, ethical, or otherwise “important.” Yet, at least as often as not, the writer will fail. He will fail to reach people for any one of a thousand reasons. She will be unable to touch people’s hearts through her words. He will not inspire those he most wants to affect. The game ends in stalemate far too often.

But we writers don’t easily give up. As absurd as it may be, we continue to offer our words, our thoughts, our black symbols on the page out to the world. I recently heard a story of a young man who put out his writing to publisher after publisher, receiving nothing but rejection letters back. This went on for months; after a while he began pasting them up in his apartment as a kind of testimony to his willingness to endure rejection. More than one hundred letters later, his luck changed when a publisher decided to accept his manuscript. Sometimes patience pays off.

Back to the midterms. It hasn’t even been a week since Americans went to the polls, and it’s already feeling a bit like old news. Today is Sunday, 11-11-18, a significant day for many, depending on your perspective. It marks the hundred-year anniversary of the end of World War I. For others, 11-11 is a spiritually important day, signifying a greater influx of light onto our world from the cosmos. For still others, it’s just another Sunday to hang out, drink beer, and watch a football game. Meaning lies in the significance an individual attaches to the object of one’s attention. Cosmic forces coming to awaken humanity, the end of the Great War, or the winners of the football match—you decide.

Here’s an interesting article from New Republic, on how the Blue Wave was built ahead of the Midterms.  https://newrepublic.com/article/152130/outsider-democrats-built-blue-wave.  You can be sure that last week’s wave was only the beginning of a greater storm building between now and 2020, and metaphor will continue as a useful tool for writers in describing the chaotic times ahead.