Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

On Being an Old Lady

sparrowI love being an old lady. I love the gifts age brings every single day.

This is what rising to an old-lady day looks like: I am first up, and I motion our two little dogs into action. They tumble down the stairs ahead of me, eager for a brief encounter with the back yard, then breakfast. And while they are rejoicing in their own routine, I slip into mine: emptying the dishwasher, straightening the house, making coffee and carrying it to my partner, showering.

I smooth my quilt across my bed, my hand lingering over its russets and burnished golds and forest greens. I acquired the quilt when I returned to Vermont for my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer’s memorial service. I had recently retired from teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a privilege Norma and I had shared, and I chose the quilt to honor my years of teaching at VCFA and, of course, Norma herself. Each morning I unfold it remembering both. I remember with sadness that they are no longer part of my days and with the deepest gratitude that they are still part of me.

Then I take the dogs for a brisk if often interrupted walk.

Back home, I make breakfast, usually a veggie omelet, fruit with a sprinkle of granola, a tall mug of green tea. I gather my book of Daily Wisdom, 365 Buddhist Inspirations and another of Mary Oliver’s poems and my breakfast, and step out to sit on the patio in front of our house. (That is still true as I’m writing, but that part of the routine will, no doubt, have altered by the time you are reading. November in Minnesota is rarely a time for enjoying breakfast on the patio.)

And then I sit and eat slowly and watch the play of the breeze in the tall ornamental grasses at the edge of the patio and the play of life beyond. I live in the city, but our yard is deep and we have made it into a haven for small life. (“A paradise for rodents” an organic farmer friend said with some amusement.)

A chipmunk skitters beneath my chair, finding me as safe a fixture as the patio furniture. A black squirrel pauses, three feet away, and regards me with a quiet solemnity that almost belies the jerk and jitter with which she will resume her morning. A rabbit has managed to squeeze beneath a fence meant to protect a struggling bush and is enjoying a quiet breakfast. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, robins, blue jays, crows and more gather to the feast my partner spreads for them. Occasionally a red-tailed hawk appears at the very top of the ash tree, and everyone else vanishes.

As I watch all this, my day’s work gathers in my mind. As I watched this morning, this piece gathered.

I open my daily reading. Sometimes the day’s offering is so wise that I can only read it, set it aside and let my bemusement pass for wisdom: “A man named Lita Shiyu asked Yangshan, ‘May I hear the principle of attaining mind?’ Yangshan said, ‘If you want to attain mind, then there’s no mind that can be attained. It is this unattainable mind that is known as truth.’” (from Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sometimes I am deeply taught: “Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins with the total acceptance of who you are.” (Bhante Henepola Gunaranta, Mindfulness in Plain English)

Then I turn to Mary Oliver. Perhaps one day I will graduate to another poet, but she teaches me so deeply—about writing, about this life I am living—that I feel no inclination to move beyond the home she makes for my spirit each day.

Mary Oliver says, “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” (Why I Wake Early, new poems by Mary Oliver)

I do watch. And I am touched by joy.

For those reading this who can think only of the scramble and clutter of your own mornings—children to be fed and groomed and herded off to school; a job, even a beloved job, demanding deadlines; too many tasks lined up and waiting—I hold up my morning as a promise of good to come.

Our society does little to honor age, but you and I can honor it. We can honor, and when we arrive at that good place, we can enjoy.

A Bride Married to Amazement

11_28mary-oliver

Photo credit: Rachel Giese

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                          (Mary Oliver, 1935 – )

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I often joke that Mary Oliver is Saint Mary Oliver for us, her poems are so often used as readings in our services. (One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that scripture is not closed. We find our inspiration in the contemporary sacred as well as the ancient.)

I also find this particular passage an excellent mantra for those of us who write for the young. “A bride married to amazement … the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

All the years I have been engaged in writing for the juvenile market there has been an on-and-off discussion about the single, most basic requirement that makes our work distinct. Hope. We are, we often remind one another, compelled to bring hope to the page.

In the earlier days of that discussion, hope meant simply a happy ending, everything coming out all right in the end. Or at least that’s what it seemed to mean to me. But as literary standards in our field have grown more fluid, not every story ties itself up in a neat bow. And not every problem presented has to prove fixable.

On My HonorMany teachers have found a way to help their students cope with their frustration over the unresolved ending of my 1986 novel, On My Honor, often used in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. They write their own Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters, and this practice is one I’ve encouraged.) My readers can decide for themselves what to do with the unresolved death, the body that hasn’t even been found. Some hold a funeral and help Joel, the main character, to move on. Some bring Tony, the boy who has drowned, back to life. He’s simply teasing, hiding in the bushes, not drowned. Some, interestingly enough, use their new ending to punish Joel, blaming him for his friend’s lies and risk-taking.

But even if the readers aren’t prepared for the unthinkable to happen, for a boy their own age to actually die in a story, at the end of my Chapter 12 I leave them with Joel’s father, solid and reliable. I leave them with a real world and real pain, but one in which love is real, too. Not every parent would be capable of bringing such grace to the tragedy Joel had endured, but this is my story, and Joel’s father’s grace is the gift I had to offer in my writing.

We live, all of us these days, in an uncertain world. One in which war, racism, climate chaos, inequity, violence, political stalemate, and disease confront us with the rising of every sun. These are realities to be faced into if we are to survive, realities for our children to face into, too.

Surely our stories must explore that uncertain foundation beneath all our feet.

But we also live surrounded by beauty, amazed by it if our senses are alive. We live capable of love, forgiveness, compassion, hope. Amazing love, forgiveness, compassion, hope.

The stories we tell our young people must be honest and true. If they aren’t, why are we telling them?

But if they aren’t filled with our own amazement then what is the point?

bauer_favicon

 

Here  You Are, Alive

And that is just the point . . . how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”
                                                                                                                     —Mary Oliver

“Here you are, alive.”

And to that fact, I don’t believe there is any more serious response than pure rejoicing.

I don’t remember doing a whole lot of rejoicing over pure aliveness when I was a child. I did, I suppose, what most children do, accepted my life as an unasked for gift, one that was important simply because it was mine.

We were not a particularly rejoicing family. My parents were responsible, certainly. Hardworking. As a family we were courteous and respectful most of the time. And I do remember with real affection my mother’s tuneless humming as she went about her household tasks, especially in her beloved kitchen.

I also remember, carry in my bones, in fact, my father’s deepest philosophy expressed in a single statement: “Life is a dirty deal.” He had supporting arguments, too.

I listened, of course. How could I not? I was curious, bemused, silently skeptical.

Maybe it was my mother’s humming and the way she sometimes said, “Oh, Daddy!” in a tone of gentle disgust when he said such things that made it possible for me to stay skeptical.

6_3cloudsStill, I was the kind of child who paused on the red-slag road halfway up the hill to turn back to gaze at clouds piling and piling behind me, too caught in their beauty to hurry away from the approaching storm. I was the kind of young adult who rose out of the dark thrall of existentialism to decide—simply decide, because I knew there could be no proof—that my life mattered. Mattered for no reason except that I felt it did, though I knew my father would have told me that my feelings proved nothing at all. And so I decided to matter and decided, too, that if my life mattered, the lives around me had to have significance as well. Because surely I couldn’t be the only creature to possess such a gift.

In the years upon years that have followed, the gift has been sharpened—I can even say blessed—by an evolving and inevitable acquaintance with death. Can any of us truly appreciate the sweetness of the air that fills our lungs before we have met death?

My comment on it all now? Past the deaths of both of my parents, past the death of my son, past the deaths of too-many friends . . .

Only that nothing is more sacred than life in all its forms. My own life, the lives of my daughter, my partner, my grandchildren, my friends. My dear little dog. The life of the lilac bush blooming in front of my house and of the dandelions so exuberantly blessing my lawn. The lives that are no more and the lives that are not yet. The life of this blue and white planet, moist and beautiful as Mary Oliver reminds us, and of this ever-expanding universe.

All sacred.

Year after year, I have lived into this knowledge, and now I have found a way to put my belief into words. I have framed my comment on being alive. My hymn to the universe. A kind of 21st century creation myth. All gathered into less than 450 words as the text of a picture book to be called The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of Stars says that the creative impulse that exploded with the Big Bang goes on exploding, unfolding, innovating still. It says that life comes out of death, that we have planets only because stars died, that we have humans only because dinosaurs died, that we have children only because our ancestors died, making room, making room.

It says that we are all made out of the same stuff. Butterflies and giraffes. Redwoods and moss. Leaping water and steadfast stone. All stardust.

The Stuff of Stars says that that you and I are stardust come to consciousness, at last, and that is the deepest wonder of all.

What a privilege to have gathered the skills to speak my heart’s truth in such a simple form.

What a privilege to be alive!

bauer_favicon

 

Starting Over

yogaEvery morning, right around 6 a.m., I spring awake. I could stay in bed longer if I wanted to, but I’m done with sleep. I step across the hall to my study where there is just enough open space on the floor for my Pilates exercises and a bit of yoga. 

That done and my body beginning to unfurl, I settle in to meditate.

Breathe. Breathe again.

I’m not a particularly experienced meditator.  I’ve explored mindfulness meditation several other times in my life, but only in the last couple of years have I begun to understand what I’m doing. Just begun. One of the things I’ve learned about it is that there is no way to fail. When you catch your mind chattering and swinging from tree to tree, you just start over. Return to your breath. Return to your breath again. And even if you have to do that a hundred times in a thirty-minute sit, you’ve had a good meditation, because you’ve paid attention.

As Mary Oliver says, “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attention.”

Life, I’ve come to know, is also built out of starting over.

I didn’t spend time in my younger days wondering what I would be like in my eighth decade. I remember when I was a child looking with astonishment at the year 2000 on a calendar and wondering whether it was possible that I would still be alive in such a remote time. But I never gave much thought—even as the years accumulated—to who I would be when I grew old. I must have assumed, though, that I would have it all together by now, whatever it was. I can tell I assumed that by the surprise I feel, almost daily, to find myself still struggling, still changing, still growing, still trying to figure out how to be this person I wake up inside of each morning.

I only know, as I’ve learned when I find myself caught in the midst of some loud clamor during my morning meditation, that it’s a privilege to start over … again. 

Last year at this time I was recovering from breast cancer surgery, waiting for the radiation treatments to begin. All that lies behind me now, but the possibilities it brought remain. Perhaps the most dramatic of those is that I have learned that I don’t have time to rush, that the only moment I have is now, that attention creates meaning.

I forget, of course. I suppose we all do. But then I start over.

Breathe. Now breathe again.

A new year is here.