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Month: January, 2019

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?

 

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?

wonder year

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sometimes we walk in circles before we find our way. or at least i do. maybe the last few months have been circle-walking. maybe the way forward is threaded by wonder. maybe what i’ve been looking for, a way into that deep-down still place inside, the place that’s a wellspring of the divine, maybe we get there by opening our eyes, putting our pulse up against the heartbeat of creation. maybe the quieter we go, the stiller we become, the more certain the sacred pulses inside and through and around and beyond.

maybe the place to begin — and this is the season for new beginnings — is right here where we are. maybe the way to begin is to be as still as we can possibly be, and plunge ourselves into those places where wonder can’t help but rub up against us.

this is hardly new revelation. i’ve been deep in the writings of thoreau these past couple weeks, poring over, underlining, making stars in the margins of a collection of passages and essays keenly observing the trees in and around walden pond and the woods of concord, mass. it’s a glorious collection of words and black-and-white photographs, gathered by the photographer and writer richard higgins from the two-million-word journal of the great transcendentalist and poet laureate of nature, henry david thoreau (1817-1862). it’s titled “thoreau and the language of trees,” and in it the instruction begins (for this is as much a guide to living as it is a historical recounting) with these guidepost paragraphs:thoreauandthelangaugeoftrees

“old trees connected thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility….

“and they were his teachers. although he called the shedding of leaves each fall a tragedy, he knew that the leaves that fell to the ground would enrich the soil and, in time, ‘stoop to rise’ in new trees. by falling so airily, so contentedly, he said, they teach us how to die.

“thoreau wrote prolifically about trees for a quarter century, from 1836 to 1861. he observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. he respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. for thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy and emerged in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.”

more and more of late, i am being drawn to a deeper understanding of the Book of Nature, a belief both catholic and jewish, a belief of many many faiths, that God first wrote the Book of Nature in creation, and then, in words, gave us the Torah, the Bible.

the pages of the Book of Nature are before us always — if we open the valves, the channels — the eyes, the ears, the soul — that detect and absorb the holy all around. the wisdom, the lessons, it’s all there to be extracted. it’s the wonder that catches our attention, that draws us in, holds us in its grasp. and then comes the pondering, the meditation, the sifting and filtering, the sieving and panning for glimmering gold.

but to notice, to pay attention, we need to go quiet. to still the noise. quell the cacophony. go to the woods or the edge of the shore. go to where the waters rush or trickle or flow in and flow out. stand under the stars of a cold winter’s night. we’re wrapped in the holiest text, the calligraphy of the great Book of Nature. God’s book. the book that beckons. the ancient and timeless antidote to the madness of civilization.

“the winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to thoreau, a place for contemplation. he walked in them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….

“thoreau also detected the divine in the woods. ‘nature is full of genius, full of divinity.’ all its motions — ‘the flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind’ — must be the ‘circulations of God.’ ‘if by watching all day and all night i detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch,’ he asked, alluding to the recurring motif in the psalms of the watchman who calls out in the morning. ‘to watch for, describe, all the divine features which i detect in Nature. my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”‘

and so, at the cusp of this blessed new year, this moment when beyond the woods the cacophony rises, i am following the trail in and through, in search of the wonder that makes clear what might otherwise escape me.

where do you find wonder? 

happy blessed newborn year to each and every one, as we all pack away the holidays, the glitter and shiny paper, and shuffle back to the extraordinary quotidian….i’m finding myself a wee bit heavy-hearted this morning as my firstborn, home for the first time in a year these past two weeks, flies off tomorrow, into what promises to be another steep climb up the next mountainside….thank goodness the so-called little one will stick around till he too shoves off when college calls early next autumn…..

p.s. ice crystals above, clinging to the roots of a fallen tree, discovered yesterday along lake michigan’s shore when my beloved and i went out for a late afternoon’s winter walk, but one of the wonders marking my annual return to the day i was birthed….