Radical Amazement

Mary Oliver once wrote that when death comes, she wants to be able to say that all her life she was a bride married to amazement. I think she always knew that she had it in her to do amazing, incredible things with her life, and so she went ahead and did them, through poetry and teaching and observing life and nature. For me, she embodies a life well lived, a beautiful marriage of giving oneself to the world and at the same time, making sure she always had enough time for herself, for solitude and contemplation. She has had the great fortune of a grace-filled life. She can rest in the knowledge that through her efforts, she has touched and inspired millions of people across the world. In my own humble way, I would love to be able to say, at the end of my life, that I too have been a bride married to amazement. That I too did something artistic and wonderful and giving which made a difference to others’ lives. That people grew for having known me, that they found a creative part of themselves which they hadn’t quite been able to access before. That knowing me inspired them in some way, and made their lives richer than it would have otherwise been. I don’t think this is purely an ego-desire on my part, but rather a sincere desire to share my gifts, to fulfill the purpose I was born to fulfill. I am beginning to see, starting to know why I am here, and what it is that I wish to do with my remaining time.

We are more magnificent than we can imagine.

It is not difficult to waste one’s life on trivialities and petty dramas. People do it all the time. We humans are masters of making mountains out of molehills, and conversely, denying and covering up our actual pain and suffering so that we don’t have to deal with them. We are all grappling with being in these human forms, and the difficulties of embodiment on earth at this time. We are all aware of the consequences of this life: addictions, violence, separation, depression, suicide, dissolution, despair, desperation. What can we do, how can we deal with our anxieties and fears?

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Everybody has a story to tell here. The biggest favor we can do for each other is to listen to another tell their story. Not with judgment or condemnation, but simply for the fact that they will heal by telling it, eventually. Many of us love to read stories, whether fiction or factual matters not. We love certain characters in a novel, play or movie because he seems all too familiar, because we see ourselves in her. My story is a little bit yours too. Okay, now I don’t feel quite so alone out here on the high seas of life. Your story has given me a lifeline, something I can hold onto, a way to help me get back to shore. When I am feeling low and alone, and like no one else in the universe cares or remembers that I exist, when eating alone the tenth night in a row is making me feel completely miserable, or when the demons come in the middle of night and attack me with their punishing thoughts, what can I do? Give in, lay down in a puddle on the floor and want to end it all? No. I will not give into fear and thoughts of hopelessness. Somehow I must find strength within myself to climb out of the hole, to hold on until the morning, to find hope that I will again one day be cooking for two or twenty. Because I am not only doing this work for myself, but for every other lonely and afraid human out there also. My struggle, my battle with the darkness of my soul is everyone’s battle. The single most important work that any of us can do now, is to embrace the love and light within ourselves, while acknowledging the darkness and pain there too, and work to find all the ways, big and small, to shine it upon the world. Every single day.

By now, I am way beyond self-help books and pep talks (even though I sometimes still read and listen to them.) Life is about more than that, and is much, much more complex. Good advice is all well and good, but the times are calling for something far deeper and greater. Our world needs compassion like never before. It can be the smallest gesture, a smile or a friendly greeting to another human as we walk down the street. It can also be simply noticing others, from people to the birds in the tree above your head. Every gesture counts. Every thought also.

When I learn how to truly love what is in my own heart, it will automatically free me to love everyone and everything else which appears to be outside of me. The illusion is that there is any separation. I love you.

<p style="font-size:15px" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">[Note: This post comes from an older blog I had on WordPress, called <em>Clearskies, Bluewater. </em> I wrote the original post in January of 2014. In upcoming posts, I will be sharing some of the best writing from that blog with readers of <strong><em>interrelatedplanet.org.</em></strong> Thanks for reading and sharing.][Note: This post comes from an older blog I had on WordPress, called Clearskies, Bluewater. I wrote the original post in January of 2014. In upcoming posts, I will be sharing some of the best writing from that blog with readers of interrelatedplanet.org. Thanks for reading and sharing.]

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.