A Poem Becomes a Poem

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched every
whereby its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

– Mary Oliver –

From poet-theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, I learned different ways to read and hear a poem. This one below, a re-created, very abridged version from Mary Oliver’s above offering, using the last word of every line. A poem becomes a poem.

light Buddha died
morning begins
clouds first fan
violet
green down trees
anything hour
upward
fields gathered
listen itself
air
every waves
everything life itself
hills fire
needed
turning
value
branches head
crowd

– KW –

A Settlement

A SETTLEMENT

Look, it’s spring. And last year’s loose dust has turned
into this soft willingness. The wind-flowers have come
up trembling, slowly the brackens are up-lifting their
curvaceous and pale bodies. The thrushes have come
home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow,
happiness, music, ambition.

And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to
go and no task undertaken but to turn the pages of
this beautiful world over and over, in the world of my
mind.

***

Therefore, dark past,
I’m about to do it.
I’m about to forgive you

for everything.

– Mary Oliver –
What Do We Know, 2002

I Worried

The Arches, Newfoundland

I WORRIED

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

– Mary Oliver –

Recently this poem has shown up on friends’ feeds and in other social media. Personal life circumstances and the still staggering impacts of the pandemic here and around the world are reason enough for the reminder.
I was taught to worry in that less than obvious way parents transmit what to do, though not necessarily what’s true nor even effective. It’s become a habit of mind, an addiction, even. And it never amounts to anything, always comes to nothing.
When I catch myself, and have the presence of mind, I turn worry into prayer, the kind that Anne Lamott describes as the “help, thanks and wow” prayer. That helps, even if only by making me feel better and giving me space to put it down for a while.

Knife

Molokai, Hawaii

KNIFE

Something
just now
moved through my heart
like the thinnest of blades
as that red-tail pumped
once with its great wings
and flew above the gray, cracked
rock wall.

It wasn’t
about the bird, it was
something about the way
stone stays
mute and put, whatever
goes flashing by.

Sometimes,
when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood
and all outrageous divisions of time
seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.

By now
the hawk has flown five mile
sat least,
dazzling whoever else has happened
to look up.
I was dazzled. But that
wasn’t the knife.

It was the sheer, dense wall
of blind stone
without a pinch of hope
or a single unfulfilled desire
sponging up and reflecting,
so brilliantly,
as it has for centuries,
the sun’s fire.

– Mary Oliver –

The photo above, taken when we spent a few days on the “off the beaten path” Hawaiian island of Molokai, might be a better correspondence with the image evoked by Mary Oliver’s words. Yet, I love how LIFE finds its way into cracks and crevices, making beauty within the improbable.

Agrigento, Sicilia

Homage II – to noticing

Mary Oliver

you were the first poet whose words I memorized
your famous question becoming
my mantra
my north star
for realizing mine was
a life wild and precious and
worthy of planning

you said you got saved by poetry and the beauty of the world
that in your later years Rumi became your daily companion
bringing refinement to – what in my eyes are – your already perfect observations
your morning walks with pencil and notebook
pausing to notice and note, your practice
rendering with words the details of God’s creation, your gift
amazement, your holy vow

bentlily (Samantha Reynolds)

yours are words that fit exactly the shape of holes in wounded hearts
you write one a day –
pithy, poignant, piercing –
about your life’s everyday moments
about your husband, children, friends, and jeans
sometimes
less than twenty lines, barely more than twenty words
those are the ones that
take my breath away
urge me to winnow mine to essence
to notice well and
choose what to let be

Today, two more poems to two more poets whose words instruct me in the art of noticing life, and in so doing, make sacred the mundane. Mary Oliver needs no introduction. Vancouver’s Samantha Reynolds, writing under the pen name “bentlily”, began writing a poem a day ten years ago “to find more joy in the tedious rhythm of life as a new mother.” It’s a practice she maintains to this day, delighting us who receive her weekly collection in our inboxes.

Today

TODAY

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

– Mary Oliver –

“I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.” – How this line resonates. A week ago I learned about a live stream virtual travel tour company and have been literally around the world, in real time, sitting still. Paris and Lyon, Florence, Venice and Pisa, Cusco, the desert in Dubai, Dubrovnik, Istanbul – 30, 45 and 60 minute tours hosted by professional guides on a “pay what you will” tip basis. I take photos “postcards”, ask questions, and delight in this remarkable use of technology that is providing a livelihood for guides, and “green” travel for me. One of the guides, Mike from Peru, shared the unforeseen, but countless benefits of this “pivot” for him, his company and community, making it all the more worthwhile. It’s been a door back into the world and the people living in it.

On the Cusp

LAST DAYS

Things are
changing; things are starting to
spin, snap, fly off into
the blue sleeve of the long
afternoon. 𝘖𝘩 and 𝘰𝘰𝘩

come whistling out of the perished mouth
of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
into substance and hue. As everything,
forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
I too love oblivion why not it is full
of second chances. 𝘕𝘰𝘸,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves. 𝘕𝘰𝘸!
booms the muscle of the wind.

– Mary Oliver –
(Twelve Moons)

In Celebration of Autumn

Here in Alberta, September is often our most consistently glorious month. Albeit, days grow shorter and the sun shines lower in the sky, but the colours. Oh, the colours! The golds against that brilliant blue sky. Amur maples glowing scarlet and orange, reminiscent of hardwoods in my hometown of Niagara. Ruby-like crab apples waiting to be plucked.

So today, in honour of the northern hemisphere’s autumnal equinox, here’s a lovely one from Mary Oliver.

SONG FOR AUTUMN

Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now
how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of the air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees, especially those with
mossy hollows, are beginning to look for

the fires that will come—six, a dozen—to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
stiffens and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its long blue shadows. The wind wags
its many tails. And in the evening
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.


Holy Alchemy

“Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;
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.”

Mary Oliver

I pray. Not so often in that formal, elaborate, church going way. But when I think of Anne Lamott’s two best prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I’m devout.

Too, when I sit during my favourite time of day, in the still and quiet morning, before sunrise – which comes earlier now – and look out onto the trees, now still full of leaves, but soon, soon, bare limbed and yes, snow covered. Or when I’m beside Annie on “her” sofa, my hand resting on her head, her front paw resting on my arm. Those count too, I think.

I’ve written about more consciously living my life as prayer since the pandemic, one of its gifts. Though when I posted about getting lost during my medicine walk, how I’d managed to manifest into the 3D physical, my interior lostness, I now admit to having felt shy to say that I’d prayed as I’d been taught, it being part of the preparation for a medicine walk and fasting quest. To offer thanks, to ask for guidance and protection at the threshold between one’s urban, more mundane life and the wilder, nature bound, sacred space beyond. Anne Lamott’s “thank you, help me” kind of prayer. And I chanted on the trail for hundreds of steps, the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” to keep myself company, and let anyone out there, hidden in the woods, know I was around. My vocal version of a bear bell.

Truth be told, I absolutely believe those prayers helped me get found, safe and sound. Helped me avoid any wildlife encounters beyond bird song, dragonflies, and scat. Like when I realized I’d lost the diamond stud earring, a cherished gift from my husband, and prayed for its return. Three days later, after retracing all my steps and stops, I took a chance to revisit the gym where I’d played pickleball. Earlier when I’d called to ask if it had been found, I’d been told they’d taken down the nets, swept the floors, and installed equipment and inflatables for children coming to play during spring break, but I persisted. Walking carefully, head bent, l traced the room’s periphery, breaking the rule to cross beyond the “stay away” sign to where the inflatable was plugged in. There it was, on the floor, inches away from the socket. How it had not been spotted by anyone plugging in and pulling out that cord for several days, was my answered prayer. Admittedly trivial in the scheme of life, with its tragedy, so much going seemingly from bad to worse every day, especially this year, but for me a vivid, visceral reminder.

When I somewhat sheepishly shared my lost on the Lost Lake trail story with my friends who had served as my quest guides last year, they said that what shone through was my recognition of prayer and its power. That yes, I had been held safe by an ancient benevolent wisdom found in nature. That I had surrendered to it when I knew I didn’t have the balance to cross the fallen tree across the “how deep” stream. Had I, I would have become even further astray. That I had remembered a line of poetry to tell me to stand still in the forest when I knew I was lost. That I had a phone and service. That I’d taken the map with emergency contact numbers. That the warden was back from vacation just that very day. That she was in that particular park, given her area of responsibility is all the public spaces spanning hundreds of kilometres to the west. That she could come and get me with her truck. That I hadn’t been stalked by the coyotes that had stalked another woman and her dogs on the same trail. That the sun shone and breeze blew comfortably. That the shots I heard fired by hunters were well beyond into another neck of the woods. That I had water, food, and time. Yes, I had prepared, and yes, I had been heard.

In that same conversation, we talked about the world, about their country, its upcoming presidential election, the pandemic impacts of COVID-19 and racism. It was before the forest fires burned into three states, leaving death and destruction, orange skies and zero visibility in their wake. I shared feeling that tension of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what. I emailed to them the next day:

… I realized I have felt “spellbound” by thinking I must do something, and not knowing what TO DO. But knowing, I do know how to pray. 

Many times it seems my thinking is foggy and lazy, that it isn’t “cogent” or coherent, that I can’t put together a compelling argument of defense. And then it came to me, this is the feminine way – to feel my way through a depth of complexity that is dark and foggy, that isn’t necessarily, yet, cogent nor coherent.

You wrote to me, gifted me, once with the invocation that I recognize with increasing vividness that I know what I know, that find myself less and less inclined to self-doubt, meekness and hesitation.

So, yes, I know the power of prayer.

I know too, the making of beauty.

Let the beauty that you love be what you do.

Rumi

I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.

And this I know is holy alchemy.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Wild Geese

Wild Geese

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver –