lines written

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Lines Written In the Days of Growing Darkness
Mary Oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Photo by yukari harada on Unsplash

night flying

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Night Flight
Mary Oliver
Traveling at thirty thousand feet, we see
How much of earth still lies in wilderness
Till terminals occur like miracles
To civilize the paralyzing dark

Buckled for landing to a tilting chair
I think: if miracle or accident
Should send us on across the upper air,
How many miles, or nights, or years to go
Before the mind, with its huge ego paling,
Before the heart, all expectation spent,
Should read the meaning of the scene below?

But now already the loved ones gather
Under the dome of welcome, as we glide
Over the final jutting mountainside,
Across the suburbs tangled in their lights,

And settled softly on the earth once more
Rise in the fierce assumption of our lives –
Discarding smoothly, as we disembark,
All thoughts that held us wiser for a moment
Up there alone, in the impartial dark.

Photo by Eva Darron on Unsplash

death: “that cottage of darkness”

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I have cited “When Death Comes” before – early last year when things were so different. Things felt fresh but it was only an intermission – like a moderately bad dream after a true nightmare… before dawn, when things truly begin again; before spring, when things truly grow and blossom again (“I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy”). And I return to this because I continue to feel its breathing, urgent life in its acceptance of death.

When Death Comes
Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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’s 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

Photo by L.W. on Unsplash

strong, thick wings

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Landscape
Mary Oliver
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

twist the meaning

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Oh my word. Is this not beautiful?

Dogfish
Mary Oliver
Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don’t you?

*

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive
for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don’t we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.

*

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

“What are we sure of?”

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On choices, priorities, fairness.

For J… run for your life.

Work, Sometimes
Mary Oliver
I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled
on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words
falling off my tongue.

The robins had been a long time singing, and now it
was beginning to rain.

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around
with a poem.

Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard
were full of lively fragrance.

You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn’t it
wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a
moment!

As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was
the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.

“Mend my life!”

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The Journey
Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

insucking genesis

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The Sea
Mary Oliver
Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself–
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—-my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
shingling
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea’s body,
vanished
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
perfect
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Settle the horses

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You know the anger and frustration you feel when you lose a document you’ve written but not saved? I just had the same experience only much more crushing. I had been reading this book aloud and recording it but had only paused the recording – not saved – when I was about two hours into what would have been four hours of reading (to complete one long – very long – chapter). The computer restarted. I lost everything. Now I have to go back and repeat this stuff again, and it feels very painful to think about.

Like so many things today (inauguration day in America). Avoid avoid avoid.

Almost daily now, especially needing the calm and the avoidance, I come back to “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

The lines: “You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert,
repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your
body
love what it loves.”

I really disliked this poem when I was younger, when teachers would force it on us, year after year, and it never really had the chance to sink in. That is to say, I never gave it a chance to sink in. Now older, more reflective, I think of this letting “the soft animal of your body love what it loves”, and it has deeper resonance and meaning. How simple sounding but so hard to actually do.

Settle the horses that so eagerly and anxiously want to bolt thunderously away. Advice from all sides, every day, every source: Give it time.

Fullest

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An excerpt:

“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’s 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

One of life’s greatest missteps and misfortunes is to not really live. To question what might have been, to let opportunities and people go who might have helped us grow, explore and see things in new ways – to question because we did not choose to experience those things for one reason or another. Our practical lives and minds steer us toward clear and safe paths: keep the miserable job because it is stable. Stay in unhappy relationships because you won’t find someone better suited or because you can’t bear to be alone. Don’t spontaneously travel to a far-flung land because it is dangerous – or because you just can’t see yourself being that spontaneous. Stop listening to music because it’s… I don’t know, what young people do? (As the lovely, old Australian film Strictly Ballroom reminds us: “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”)

Without really living – embracing, learning, loving, doing – haven’t you only visited this world?

The abuser
I had a job for many years that, in no uncertain terms, was bad. I liked the actual work and subject matter (I did learn a lot) and loved many of my colleagues. But the organizational culture and company – totally delusional. And they played the role of abuser. Most people there were zombified automatons, brainwashed to think they were making a difference, to think they could do no better elsewhere, that every place is the same or would be worse or – god forbid – that the way this place operated was normal. But my nomadic nature taught me better – I had changed roles and companies frequently and was doing other work in parallel that showed me just how miserable that place was.

Almost everyone with whom I worked closely has left and all of them express to me this feeling of having left an abusive partner – having been told repeatedly, “You will never find something better. You aren’t good enough for something else. Nothing else will be better than this anyway.” As soon as they left, a giant weight lifted from their shoulders, and they realized, “Wow, I can actually do things. I am actually effective and smart.” And the toxic nature of the relationship and culture of the previous company becomes clearer than ever.

But while there are the few who have been “liberated” there are still the herds and hordes who haven’t and probably never will be. Mostly “lifers” who have nothing to compare it to and would not have the skills or sense to make it anywhere else.

I wonder when I think of these people whether they are truly living. In some cases, I would say, no, they are not living according to my definition of living – but then they don’t have to. They can define it for themselves. Some people there are just going for the paycheck, camaraderie and flexibility on holidays and their external/non-work lives are full of living. Some like the exceedingly family-friendly nature of the company and stay for more than a decade while having a family. These things make sense. But the die-hard, drank-the-Kool-Aid types don’t make much sense, and I can’t compare what they are doing to living. (At least I would ask in the end of my life “if I have made of my life something particular, and real…” –and the answer would be no.)

The seeker
What would life be without music? It’s something about which I am passionate – even if I have never been one to make music (which I kind of regret – but at the same time, it’s not such a deep regret or loss that I will ponder it at the end of my life wondering why I didn’t do something about it).

But no, I am on a constant journey of discovering new music – and sharing it (like it or not). I’ve written about this before, and about the supposed drop-off in music discovery at age 27 (or something similarly strange. Oh no, 33. As if that is so much better). I will never understand this.

The other day I told a friend I might be in Gothenburg for a concert; she asked me what show, knowing full well she would have no idea who it was because she is just not into following music. It defies all logic for her – and for many of my friends – that I can put together a mix of music several times a year with so many things they have never heard of.

But for me I can’t say I think I would be living without constantly seeking out new music. To fully live life, it needs a soundtrack.

The lover
I do not love easily or often. When I do, on these rarest of occasions, I know it. I know I love and there are no questions or doubts about the feeling or what it is or what it means. (Does it mean there is no fear? Of course not. But there is no doubt whatsoever about what the feeling is.) When I love truly and deeply, pulled by an undeniable force that I can’t control, I would go to the ends of the earth. Despite my infamous insular, self-driven and independent nature, I am, by love, transformed to become expansive in my inclusion of the person I love, inviting them to also inhabit the world we create together – a person for whom I would go anywhere, do almost anything and defend, support and love through dark and light, bad and good. This all-encompassing approach should make it clear why I don’t and can’t feel this way about just anyone (as much as I simultaneously revile and admire people who think they fall in love with every person they meet – the whole thing must be very easy for them. Not to be dismissive, of course).

It happens that this infernal New Age book I recently read (yes, I keep referring back to it) described well how I might describe it. In addition I would say that love is… or, maybe no, not love, but lovingactive loving – is fundamentally a conversation. A conversation that goes on, lingers, does not end, that continues even in silence.

“…the value and process of soulful romance rests in what he calls radical conversation, in which one intends, continuously, to discover more and ever more about oneself and the other. Through such an exchange between two mysteries, one draws nearer to the central mystery of life.

Loving the otherness of the partner is a transcendent event, for one enters the true mystery of relationship in which one is taken to the third place – not you plus me, but we who are more than ourselves with each other.”

“Radical conversation has emotional, imaginal, sexual and spiritual dimensions as well as verbal ones. And the conversation is approached not only with skill and intent but also with innocence and wonder. Neither the other nor the self is a fixed thing. The bottom is never reached. One hopes to be forever surprised.

But of course it’s not all delight and ease. Far from it. We are constantly discovering how we project our shadow – both its light and dark aspects – onto each other. The dance of soulful romance always includes owning back those projections and transferences. Our relationship will expose all the places we are emotionally blocked, blinded, wounded, caged, protected, or otherwise limited.” -Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft

Does this mean no doubts ever creep in? No. But they don’t negate, erase, eliminate or diminish the underlying feeling or its strength.

Doubt’s a constant stream of questions (these don’t all apply to me; just a generic list): Am I rebounding? Am I clear-headed enough to embark on something significant? Am I repeating the exact same pattern that got me into a long and one-sided love affair from years ago? Am I ready for this? Or, for example, as one friend pointed out about people ending long relationships and possibly heading into new ones, have they really grappled with the question, “Who am I outside the old/long relationship?”

Yes, questions and doubts because that is what it is to interact and be with those with whom we are in love: to shut out the noise of too many superfluous questions and practicalities, all of which do not matter at the core of it all, and to find a place together (emotionally more than physically) that is both centered and calm at the same time as setting you alight and keeping you deeply rooted in the moment, wanting more but being content all at once.

At the core of it all, I will still live fully. I am fully alive. And I love. And I know I love.

Photo (c) – the late, great Paul Costanich