Such a long, strange, and incredible journey

Twenty seven years ago, in the early morning hours before dawn, I gave birth to my eldest daughter. From the moment I first saw and held her, I knew my life was changed forever. Suddenly, I became “Momma” instead of just a young woman living a somewhat freewheeling, spontaneous life. Motherhood stamps the concept of family upon the soul in ways that are difficult to define, yet nearly every woman who becomes one can relate. Suddenly here is this tiny, fierce being, newly sprung from your own womb, who is simultaneously part of you and also their own self, loudly demanding that you cradle, nurse, care for and love them incessantly for the foreseeable future. Oh my.

As many mothers will tell you, the work of mothering is probably the most difficult and rewarding work that a woman can do, and in society’s eyes, the most undervalued. What a shame this is, since the future of the human race depends on mothers doing the very best job of child raising possible. But that argument can wait for another day. This blog post is for musing and sharing my personal journey over the past twenty seven years, from the moment my life changed until today.

What a long, strange trip it’s been, sang the band The Grateful Dead back in the early 1970s. Surely their words have proved truer than any of us could’ve known back in the days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Sometimes memory is a trickster—we tend to idealize the past, bury the uglier or more painful moments, and only recall what was most joyful and beautiful. And yet, we also must admit that, ironically, the most painful moments of our lives tend to be our greatest teachers.

When I take the long view of the last almost three decades of my life, it’s hard to believe so much time has passed. Now that scientists are explaining to everyone more about quantum time, it makes more sense that something that happened decades ago still feels almost as incredible and life changing as it did then. After the first daughter arrived, two more followed over the next seven years. As difficult as they were, the years that I spent raising my three girls were also golden. Golden and magnificent rainbows, with periods of rain and sometimes howling hurricanes—even wildfires and drought.

With so many humans leaving the planet due to the pandemic this year, I wonder if many people aren’t naturally thinking more about their own death, and consequently, their life. The two are inseparable, yet many in modern society are terrified of death and seem to do almost anything to avoid the subject or really peering into their own mortality. I imagine that being born must be at least as traumatic as dying. There you are, all snug and cozy in your mother’s womb where it’s safe, warm, and encompassing you in constant, liquid love, and the next thing you know you are pushed out into a completely other world that is intensely bright, harsh, noisy and you’re suddenly on your own—no more umbilical cord connection to the source of your life and nourishment. What an adjustment period newborns must endure!

Many people see death and dying as a great tragedy, something to be avoided for as long as possible. They espouse the doctrine of staying alive at all costs, using all the tools that modern medicine and science makes possible. Yet, indigenous wisdom teaches something else. The wisdom keepers of our species understand that death isn’t the end, only the shedding of this current costume we are wearing, our personhood. Our ego wants to tenaciously hold on until the very last possible second, only letting go when it absolutely must. But wisdom teachings say that we should work while we are alive, towards a “good death.” To have a good death, one needs to have lived a good life, one filled with as much joy, love, beauty, truth, compassion, and service to others as possible. They teach that when a person has lived well, they will die well, at peace. When death arrives at their door, they won’t be so afraid and hollow inside. The person will simply let go of their physical body as their soul, the eternal part of each of us, continues its journey in the spiritual realms. From what I’ve studied and researched, the journey after physical earth life is complete is quite marvelous. Rather than something to fear and dread, it is a time of great homecoming and joyful reunion with beloveds on the other side of the veil. I can well imagine wonderful celebrations and parties, as we reunite with souls we haven’t seen for a long time and missed. Imagine that!

The Three of Cups in traditional Tarot decks exemplify the concept of homecoming for the newly arrived soul.

There is much wisdom built into our system of birth and death. It’s a blessing that none of us quite know when we will lay down our body and return to the spiritual realms. Some say that all along the trajectory of our life, there are exit doors, so to speak. I think that means that the human is given opportunities to use the escape hatch if the soul, for whatever reason, no longer wishes to complete their entire contract for that particular lifetime. This could explain why sometimes very young people check out of their lives early, or someone is suddenly taken through tragedies like car accidents and the like. We don’t all come to the earth plane with a contract to live to be very old. I believe it’s time to move past our societal fear of death and dying, and instead to celebrate all that the soul accomplished while they were here, and, as cultures worldwide have always done, to throw a party when their beloveds pass on to the next journey. The goodbyes seem to be the hardest part for us humans to say. But they are so critically important, both to the one leaving, and to the ones who stay behind. Both with being born and dying, the most important thing is to surround the incoming or outgoing soul with tender loving care My middle daughter, when a young girl, used to beg for “TLC” which she pronounced “tilk” when she was craving comfort and reassurance. Absolutely, “tilk” is what we need to give each other in the times we are living through now, and all the challenging days and decades to come. Many more souls will be leaving the earth in the near future, and many incoming souls will arrive. Earth is a busy place with souls constantly arriving and departing. I imagine it like this: when a person dies, they board an etheric version of a train or bus, which takes them to the cosmic airport. From there, they will catch a ride in some kind of transport vehicle to their next destination. Ever since I began to envision the afterlife this way, the familiar words that we all hear as our earthly airplanes are preparing to touch down took on a whole new meaning—if this is your final destination, please make sure you have all your baggage with you when departing the plane.  Final destination indeed!!
Dear Readers, if you read this whole post, I thank you for taking the journey with me. I send you love and blessings of peace and joy. No worries, and remember to enjoy every single precious day you have to be alive. What a gift life is!

We need Mary Oliver more than ever

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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.