pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

and so we wait…

IMG_1376

down where the earthworms stir, there must be stirring. all the science books say so. but from here, at my kitchen window, it takes some convincing to buy into the notion that this here is springtime.

i know the calendar says so. i know sun and planet earth did their vernal doh-si-doh, as big ol’ sun inched its way north across the equator at 4:58 p.m. (chicago time) day before last, and suddenly spring had sprung. but round here, there’s not much springing to be spied. we’re in the crouch-down-low days of earliest spring, when your knees have to get in on the act if you really want to catch mama earth in her opening numbers.

the surest sign that earth is a rumbling is what’s happening up in the trees. and i don’t mean the leaves. i mean the cardinals, flitting and chasing and carrying on like red-feathered banshees. males chasing males. aerial cartwheels. rabid games of catch-me-if-you-can. male and female flirting like nobody’s business. pheromones must be filling the air. the occasional female butting in on somebody else’s romance. (oh, the vociferous protest!) it would be safe to assume baby cardinals — flocks and flocks of them — will soon offer proof of unseen ornithological joinery.

me, i’m just stationed here at my old maple table, filling my hours with words — birdsong as backdrop. my lifework seems to have settled into the sedentary task of reading and writing. my eyes and six of my fingers seem to be the only moving parts of me many a day. my brain, though, and my soul and my heart, they’re all deeply engaged. it’s just that, from the outside, you can’t see them expanding. sort of like the hard work of mama earth in springtime. sort of like what’s happening down where the earthworms wriggle. (or start to think about wriggling, anyway.)

the stacks by my side seem to grow taller and taller. occasionally teeter. if i’m not careful i’m going to turn into a hoarder. a hoarder of big ideas and snippets of poetry. not a bad affliction. this week alone i welcomed these fine friends to my flock: the late essayist and editor brian doyle (a book of uncommon prayer: 100 celebrations of the miracle & muddle of the ordinary and god is love: essays from portland magazine); historian and storyteller extraordinaire jill lepore (these truths: a history of the united states; brilliant!); diarist etty hillesum (considered the adult counterpart to anne frank, her diary and letters, written during the darkest years of nazi occupation, testify to the possibility of compassion in the face of devastation, and the combined work —  diary and letters bound in a single volume — is titled an interrupted life: the diaries, 1941-1943 and letters from westerbork); two jewish books of blessings called “benchers,” prayers and songs in hebrew and english (for a class i’m teaching). and finally, and emphatically, mary oliver’s long life: essays and other writings. in the wake of her death, i have found myself reaching back into her bookshelf, finding titles i’d not known before. long life is a beauty, one from which i scribble and scribble, taking notes like a chimney — a poetry chimney — puffing up bellows of something like holy incense.

here are just a few bits i couldn’t help but add to my Mary O. litany:

30. “What can we do about God, who makes then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?” — Long Life, p. 17 

31. “I walk in the world to love it.” — Long Life, p. 40

32. “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.” — Long Life, p. 88 

and then there are these two longer passages, which i tucked into my ever-growing file, titled “book of nature notes”:

“This I knew, as I grew from simple delight toward thought and into conviction: such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning. So I began to consider the world as emblematic as well as real, and saw that it was—that shining word—virtuous. That it offers us, as surely as the wheat and the lilies grow, the dream of virtue.

“I think of this every day. I think of it when I meet the turtle with his patient green face, or hear the hawk’s tin-tongued skittering cry, or watch the otters at play in the pond….” (Long Life, p. 87) 

“A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It is the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world — especially to that part of it with which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate….  

“Opulent and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis, and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly. … And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.

“And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a  field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend.…  

“It is the intimate, never the general, that is teacherly. The idea of love is not love. The idea of ocean is neither salt nor sand; the face of the seal cannot rise from the idea to stare at you, to astound your heart. Time must grow thick and merry with incident, before thought can begin.

“It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape — between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises — bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly joy.”  (Long Life, pp. 89-91)

and thus, my dispatch from the muck days of spring….

what’s expanding your soul this week?

my ancestral irish blessing, slathered with butter.

shannon soda bread

he came to me, as all sprites always do, when i wasn’t looking. just popped up one day inside the gremlin-filled flat-box that is my 21st-century laptop. it’s as good a place to find an enchanted character as ever there was.

he’s my sprite of an irish cousin — third cousin, in fact (i let him do the math) — and he came to me out of the ether, and filled me ever since with doggerels and ballads and pictures and stories, all thick with a brogue. he’s filled in — as much as he possibly can — the wide and deep vacuum of history on my papa’s side of the family. the straight-from-ireland side. the side i knew least about, but wondered most about, because it’s the side i see when i peek in the mirror, and it’s the side that belonged to my pa. and, well, it’s mythic to me.

it’s a tale filled with ocean crossings, and childbirth deaths, and heartbreak hard upon heartbreak. one uncle was struck by lightning, when he ran to hide in his kentucky tobacco barn from a midsummer storm of biblical proportion. (the uncle who found him — his kid brother — might have drowned his sorrows, dying of liver disease years later.) another was slashed in his tent in a midnight attack on the japanese island of iwo jima. before he shipped off to war, that uncle — danny was his name, my dad’s oldest half-brother — ran the legendary calumet (horse) farm, just outside lexington, kentucky. and the triple-crown champion, whirlaway, was one of his stable.

in my cousin paddy’s telling, there is plenty, too, to make your chest swell. and your eyes grow misty. and some that just plain raises your eyebrows. among the latter: there’s the uncle who served as a jailer in a wee kentucky town, and while trying to lock up one of the infamous hatfields or mcCoys found himself bit in the head by the rascal. (no fool, that uncle up and hightailed it to the california coast, far as he could get from hillbilly feuds).

a few months back, dear paddy sent along a treasure in the form of a slip from the ancestral recipe tin: the very irish soda bread served at the family homestead hard by the bridge in kildimo south, in the county of clare, in the west of the great verdant isle.

if you’ve poked around here for more than a minute or two, you know that i consider the kitchen a mystical magical place, a room where you can bring old souls into your midst through the simple stirring or sifting of flour and soda and sugar.

so it was that i found myself the other afternoon with fists deep in the pillowy mound of flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk that is the beginning and end of the true irish soda bread. no sugar! no raisins! paddy exclaimed, shaking his fist at the kitchen profanity.

as i brushed the mound with the last dabs of buttermilk, and, not an hour later, pulled the golden loaf from my sputtering oven, i good as felt my grandma mae peeking over my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck. close as i’ve ever felt to the one whose genes are mine (in a rare moment of heart-baring, my pa once told me how much of her he saw in me — she’d died years before i was born; and i sensed over all the years that he said very, very little because it hurt too, too much).

because paddy himself is inimitable — and purely lovable in his unfiltered tongue — i’m unfurling the recipe just as he wrote it, swear words and all. his vernacular spice takes it up more than a notch in my book; a soda bread with swears is the way it should — and ever will — be.

be sure to slather with good irish butter.

Paddy’s Irish Soda Bread

(West Clare Recipe)

There are only (4) four ingredients in Traditional Irish Soda Bread, Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Buttermilk. No More No less. I don’t give a tinkers hoot in hell what you’ve read, eaten, or heard! You put anything else in it you are not making Irish Soda Bread. I first had this bread served by Great Aunt Katherine Ni Shannon Marrinan at the Anna Bridge House in Kildimo South, Clare in 1970. She baked it over the turf fire. Yep had the Irish Butter and the Orange Marmalade for the first time as well with strong cups of Irish Tae. Kitty Ni Shannon Downes also made it for me at the Half Door in Miltown Malbay and it was just as grand. It’s especially good after a night of drinkin’ the porter…….settles the stomach before ya go to bed.

Ingredients

(Use a Dry Cup Measure for the flour – Not a Liquid Measure)

4 cups(16oz) of Gold Medal Bread flour

1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Salt
14 Oz of Buttermilk

  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk. Using a spatula or your hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round, about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. Place it on a baking sheet and using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the center of the dough reaching out all the way to the sides. Then brush over the loaf with a bit more of the buttermilk.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes longer. Serve warm. Cut in semi-thick wedges.

4. Now then get yourself a couple slabs of Kerry Gold Irish Butter. Yes it really does make the difference when eatin’ Irish Soda Bread. And I don’t want to hear from any Mick blatherskite goin’ on about it being too “Dear”. Shut the hell up Paddy and cough up the shillings.

5. Orange Marmalade. King Kelly was the best. Came out of California. I used it for over 30 years. However, Smuckers bought them out then discontinued the King Kelly Brand and Recipe. My friend from the County Mayo likes the “Dundee” brand but what the hell does a bitter ole Mayo Man know about anyting? If ya like the bitter side of tings then get it. I suppose I’m stuck with Smuckers until I can find something even vaguely close to King Kelly….Jayzus…..Dundee Indeed…..

6. Now go buy some Irish Tae. Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea or Plain Barry’s Irish Tea. I like Barry’s Irish Breakfast but sometimes it’s just not available. I’ve been known to drink Tetley’s Englash Breakfast Tea but keep your gob shut about it. I may be a Traitorous gobshite but you’d be an Informer!

Bonny Petute Paddy Shannon

may your days be filled with the swirls of long-ago tales, and homespun heroes. and this:

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

what’s your family heirloom, of the kitchen variety? 

this one’s for paddy, who has unfurled his heart and filled mine. much love from your ol’ cousin babs…

if you look closely enough……

IMG_1347

you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

balm for the late-winter blues

IMG_1339

maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?

book of delights, indeed

IMG_1331

there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

love story of unlikely plot line

IMG_1321

it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.

the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.

when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”

this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.

the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to  listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.

not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.

we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.

well, then.

we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).

gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”

and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”

holy cow! that is some service!

father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”

“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.

and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”

we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”

so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.

and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.

i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.

and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too. 

IMG_1319

the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story? 

keeping company with waldo & friends

by the hour, i sit behind my wall of books, reaching from merton to thoreau to emerson, deeper and deeper into the folds of wisdom. it all started because of merton, aka brother louis. or maybe it all started because of mary O. or maybe it all started because of my mother.

my mama, who goes to mass every day of her life (a week ago, during the depth of the polar vortex, i called, and she was in her armchair at 8 o’clock sharp, watching mass on the telly. i shouldn’t have been surprised, and i wasn’t; but i melted a bit at her devotion), she must have been my first rabbi (rabbi in hebrew translates to “master,” or “teacher”).

she’s the one who woke me each morning, flinging the blinds, warbling lines from browning or dickinson — “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (browning, song from “pippa passes”); “some keep the sabbath going to church — / i keep it, staying at home — / with a bobolink for a chorister — ” (dickinson, 236).

she’s the one whose home movies always drifted away from the faces of her five cherubic children to the iridescent-blue indigo bunting, or the neon-red scarlet tanager darting in the boughs over our heads. some 60 years ago, when in a single day a realtor toured her through half a dozen lovely houses along chicago’s north shore, she bought the one with the most trees. and the creek gurgling in the woods across the street, and the green pond where the frogs croaked and the turtles sunbathed on logs, and the country club directly across the way, with its wide-open vista, promising her a lifetime of sunsets.

she must have been the one who first planted the seed. the seed that has grown and grown. the seed that now is a towering, undeniable, inescapable force, the one that draws me into the woods, under the star-stitched dome of midnight or dawn, the seed that draws me to windows where i can keep watch — on the birds, on the wind, on whatever is falling from heaven.

turns out i am hardly alone in this congregation of woods-goers. i’ve been hot on the trail of something called the Book of Nature, a text i’d never known by name, though i’ve been reading it since before i learned to assemble alphabet letters into words that came with particular sounds and meanings. i’d first learned of it — by name — when a rabbi i was talking to on the radio a few years back said of my first book, slowing time, “it’s midrash to the Book of Nature.” (midrash is defined as ancient commentary, often rabbinic, on Hebrew Scripture; it makes connection between text and lived reality, so says my all-things-jewish dictionary.)

hmm. i’d never known that a girl with a confirmation name, and a patron saint besides, could put a pen to midrash. but my main intrigue centered on this Book of Nature, a title i certainly wanted to get my hot little hands on.

over time, and through the years since, i’ve burrowed deeper and deeper into this ancient wisdom. there’s a whole theology that centers on the notion that the Book of Nature, unfurled at Creation, is God’s first holy text. (called the Two Book Theology, it’s the belief that God is revealed through a pair of complementary sources: the Books of Scripture and Nature; Genesis followed by Word.) this first text even has a latin name, librum naturae, and it traces through the millennia, an idea explored by the ancient “church fathers,” among them augustine of hippo, origen of alexandria, galileo, on through martin luther, emily dickinson, clear to merton’s gethsemani doorstep and mary oliver’s walks through the cape cod woods.

a fellow by the name of sir thomas browne, clear back in the 17th-century, aptly wrote: “there are two books from whence i collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, Nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.”

just a few years ago, pope francis wrote: “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'” and before him, pope john paul declared: “the visible world is like a map pointing to heaven… we learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.

all i knew was that i love nothing more than to stand, stone still, under the night sky, drinking in the moon and the glowing orbs of heaven. or to sit burrowed in sand and stiletto-sharp dune grasses along the shore, counting out the undulations of the lake’s watery pulses. or to marvel at the mama bird dutifully and vigilantly building her nest, one shriveled stick or grass or ribbon at a time.

i knew and know that i feel the hand of God there. feel the telltale tingle up my spine. i know God’s nearby when i catch the goosebumps breaking out along my arms and my thighs.

so, acolyte to Wisdom, i follow the trail deep into the pages where wisdom is recorded, where it’s spelled out in words that hold me like a vice, or would it be as a spelunker? this week found me in the Transcendentalists: first thoreau, then the master, r.w. emerson, who i learned preferred to go by his middle name, waldo. (henceforth, waldo it is.)

i’ll begin though with a few notes drawn from thoreau, first from richard higgins’ thoreau and the language of trees:

…The winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to Thoreau, a place for contemplation. He walked them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….All its motions… must be “circulations of God.”

and from thoreau himself: “if by watching all day and all night i may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”

or: “my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

maple trees, thoreau called “cheap preachers,” whose “century-and-a-half sermons” minister to generations. 

at his funeral, thoreau’s friend and teacher emerson said that despite thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion.” 

which drew me straight to emerson, absorbed for days in his signature essay, Nature. and these are but some of the notes i scribbled into my notebook:

Chapter IV Language:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.

A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

Chapter VII Spirit: 

[Nature] always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us. The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship. 

…the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.

…Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

Chapter VIII: Prospects

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.

no wonder mary oliver called herself a student, first and most, of emerson, who taught her — and us — that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.”

and with that i leave you to your own musings on the true work of our lives, the Book of Nature, and its most brilliant disciples and diviners….

who are your wisdom teachers, from the pages of the Book of Nature, or otherwise?

IMG_1276

one stack among many

survival, astonishingly

frost-crystals-on-glass-texture

the artistry of dawn, frozen against the windowpane

the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.

our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.

at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.

closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.

if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.

we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?

it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.

i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.

once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.

at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.

and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas. survival

there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.

i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.

we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.

thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.

what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?

enwrapped, still, with mary O

winter-woods-1418741454w4l

it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.

inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.

i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.

img_1249all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.

reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)

and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.

it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?

because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.

here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:

“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)

Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”

A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”

Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”

Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.

“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:

 “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” 

—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook” 

may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….

which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

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.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?