Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Mary Oliver

Sunrise | Mary Oliver

You can
die for it—
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
brilliantly,
letting
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India,
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 125-126
Published by Beacon Press

Dear Mary,

The deep breath at the end of your poem got me. No, make that the repeated deep breaths you would take for all of us. Not just for yourself.

There’s a dearth of deep breaths these days. Instead we seem to prefer eruptions of hot anger, fury, disbelief and righteous indignation. They’re often carried out via Twitter.

Sadly, there’s plenty to die for these days. Things haven’t advanced that much since you left us. Still, I’m intrigued by your additional way to enter the fray. Instead of offering ourselves up as martyrs, or turning others into martyrs, we might try taking a deep breath and entering the fire by way of ‘fiery’ happiness.

There’s still something to be said for fury. Especially when we’re being deceived by many of our leaders. I fear we have a long way to go, especially here in the USA, before we’re skilled in happiness that knows how to enter the fire.

If you read this anytime soon, we would be honored to have you take some deep breaths for all of us on this planet. I think we need a jump-start on happiness that creates “an unforgettable fury of light.” The other plan, social media burnings at the stake, isn’t working for us, despite the raging fury.

With gratitude and hope,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 March 2020
Photo found at pexels.com

A note to Mary Oliver

This morning
I woke with a start
Already caught up in
The impossible tug between
Daily upkeep and writing
Now in danger of starvation
Thanks to inedible pieces
Unredeemed if not forgotten
Standing at my heart’s door
Begging for a breath of air

Yes, Mary, you found a way to live with disciplined abandon. Doing what you loved most. Though it wasn’t easy, you found a way.

I want to believe there’s a way for me. Not to be you, but to be the writer I am, the woman I am, the mother, sister, and grandmother I am.

I was happy to retire from my professional life. It wasn’t all bad. I can’t imagine myself today without it. It was, however, punishingly difficult work, sometimes even outrageous.

So here I am, wondering how I might relate to you except in some far-off never never land.

It pains me to admit this: In spite of the inspiration and insights I gain from your writing, I might be happier if I’d never discovered you. Then again, this is probably the highest compliment I could give you.

I don’t hate my life, and I have no plans to give up. It’s just that every time I read Upstream, I realize how much of life I’ve missed, and how little time is left for me.

Gratefully,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 March 2020
Photo found at labmonline.co.uk

A Visitor | Mary Oliver

This haunting poem by Mary Oliver comes from a 1986 collection called Dream Work. My comments follow.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
returns
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 116-117
Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver left home early in life to get away from an abusive situation. Now, years later, wild knocking in the dark of night reminds her of what she ran away from. If she opens the door, she must confront the man she remembers having a “waxy face” and “a lower lip swollen with bitterness.”

She ignores the pounding on the door. The knocking persists at all hours of the night. And so she “stumbles down the hall,” and the door “falls open.”

In an instant, Mary Oliver knows she has nothing to fear. In fact, it seems she’s surprised to discover her father is “pathetic and hollow.” Even his smallest dreams have frozen, and his meanness has vanished.

She greets him, invites him to come into her house, lights a lamp, looks into his “blank eyes” and sees what was needed when she was a child, plus what might have been “had we loved in time.”

The poem isn’t about Mary Oliver’s father; it’s about Mary. In the end, It affirms her decision to leave home, and acknowledges the high cost she and her father paid. With grief, and without apology.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 February 2020
Book cover image found at amazon.com

Everlasting | Mary Oliver

In this poem, Mary Oliver tells us clearly what she wants to accomplish when she writes poems. It’s a high order. Some might say impossible. My brief comments follow.

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.

© 2005 by Mary Oliver in New and Selected Poems Volume Two, p. 4
Published by Beacon Press

The lovely photo at the top is deceptive. It omits the everything of those fields Mary Oliver is crossing. In particular, it should include “daisies and everlasting and the ordinary grass.” What is this thing called everlasting? Think invasive pest, cudweed, or more properly, American everlasting. In case you haven’t met up with it yet, here’s the other photo I might have put at the top.

When I read this poem about writing poetry, I hear Mary’s emphasis falling on beauty. Everyday beauty that wants to be seen just as it is, not dressed up. Unfortunately, this includes beauty that doesn’t always strike us as beautiful. We prefer words like ‘invasive’ and devote time to keeping them out of our fields and gardens.

Just as creation includes everything, so Mary Oliver wants her poetry to honor everything, no matter how beautiful or invasive or downright ugly we think it is. Hope and promise, hearts of faith and the light of the world point to the unseeable, never to be underestimated or second-guessed due to our timebound, limited sight.

I wonder whether Mary Oliver knows her poem begs to be preached. She sets a high bar for herself and for us–whether we write poetry or not.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 January 2020
Top photo found at pinterest.com; invasive American everlasting photo found at http://www.invasive.org

Landscape | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s daily walk around the pond offers a small sermon of sorts. My comments follow.

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

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

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

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

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

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, p. 129
Published by Beacon Press

Imagine you’re part of a sheet of moss covering the ground. Often small and unassuming except to students of mosses. Some might say you’re hardly worth noticing, even though the pond and the woods wouldn’t be what they are without your patient presence. Doing what you do best.

Or maybe you’re one of those towering black oaks offering food and shelter, in life and in death, to birds and small animals. Part of an ecosystem as fragile and beautiful as spring flowers.

Does nature have a heart? Mary suggests the crows have been thinking all night about the kind of lives they would like to live. Perhaps imagining “their strong, thick wings” and then bursting into flight at daybreak. Doing with gusto what they’ve already imagined they might do.

Life isn’t simply about the way we imagine ourselves. It’s also about keeping the doors of our hearts open, and going for it every day of our lives. Welcoming each day no matter what it brings. Doing what we do best, with spiritual patience, fragile humility, and hearty gusto.

Looking to the New Year, I want the doors of my heart to be open—no matter what each day brings. I know it’s a tall order. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth much, would it?

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 December 2019
Photo found at etsy.com

Making the House Ready for the Lord | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver makes it simple, true and easy. My comments follow.

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice—it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

© Mary Oliver 2006
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 13

Yesterday I was bemoaning wisps of cat hair floating in every corner; cardboard boxes piled high, waiting for old give-away books; kitchen gadgets and pots looking for a new home or sitting in the sink waiting to be cleaned.

Not that I expect the Lord to visit–though that isn’t an impossibility. This is about regular people who come to our door unannounced. Why shouldn’t things be neat and tidy? After all, I’m retired, and have all the time in the world to keep up appearances!

Mary Oliver’s poem makes me laugh at myself. I’m not a collector of vagabond mice, squirrels or lost dogs. However, for years I’ve collected books, kitchen gadgets and small bits and pieces of arty stuff. Which collects its own stuff called dust.

Unannounced visitors put me to the test. Am I ready to receive the Lord? Maybe this is stretching it, but if I’m not ready to receive the Lord just as I am, I’m probably not consciously ready to receive anyone just as I am.

Even so, truth be told, I’m always ready, whether I think I am or not. In fact, when the Lord or any one of you arrives and comes into my house, it will be ready. Living proof of my priorities, my weaknesses, my loves, my memories and my hopes. All of me. What more could you, or the Lord, ask for?

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 November 2019
Photo by JSLeesPhotography found at Flickr.com
Red Fox, Alonquin, Canada

When I Am Among the Trees | Mary Oliver

Here’s a Happy Monday poem for everybody. My comments follow.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 4

Today it’s sunny, bright, very cool, and breezy. I’m just back from a morning walk beneath and near trees, many towering toward the sky.

If I were an older tree right now, I’d be cowering close to the ground. Hoping no one would notice how many leaves I’ve lost, or how bent and even broken my branches are. And did you see those ugly thick roots protruding farther from the ground when the green grass turns brown?

On the other hand, maybe passersby will see how beautiful my remaining leaves are. Or listen to the music of the wind dancing around my chilly bones. Or notice that more light flows through and from my gnarly branches when those pesky, preening leaves are long gone.

I love this poem. Though it seems to have spring, summer and autumn in mind, it works for winter as well. Especially when the wind whips through iced branches, bouncing off fragile twigs and sturdy green needles. To say nothing of new snow covering everything in a down comforter.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Happy Monday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 November 2019
Image of Beech Trees in Autumn found at thurmanovich.com

Morning Poem | Mary Oliver

No “orange sticks of the sun” this morning. Just rain, gusty wind, and the nonstop sound of water draining from the gutters. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s poem invites me into a world waiting with open arms. My comments follow.

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries in it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead –
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging –

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

© Mary Oliver, 1992, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, pp 106-07
Published by Beacon Press

I don’t have to feel happy and upbeat every morning. This poem isn’t about how I feel. It’s about what I’m already being offered, and what I already need no matter how I feel.

I don’t even have to pray. The gift is already there. Ready and waiting for me to discover it. The answer to what I’ve always wanted. The world re-created overnight. Wild and beautiful. Carrying on with or without me. An answer to a prayer I never even prayed.

I’m encouraged when I think about Mary Oliver’s life. She left everything in order to make a life for herself. One day at a time. Heading upstream. One small observation at a time, plus a few words ‘thrown together.’ Mary Oliver lived what she wrote, and wrote what she lived.

No magic wand or mantra can make it all come out right. Still, each morning we’re offered the gift of another day. Plus imagination to look beyond the heaviness of today, and see that dark pond of water lilies blazing with color.

Praying you’ll have a glimpse of blazing lilies today.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 October 2019
Photo found at etsy.com

A Bitterness | Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver hooked me a few months ago. I think it’s about her father. In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary describes what she did in order to have a life of her own. This included taking a different route in life than her father took. In this poem, she describes his life as she understands it after his death.

A Bitterness

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

© by Mary Oliver in 1992; published by Beacon Press in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, winner of The National Book Award; poem found on p. 43

I wonder what Mary Oliver’s father would say about this description. It strikes me as a perceptive and honest lament. This is the father she left in order to save her own one precious life. It’s also the bitter man who never found the comfort he craved.

In the last lines, Mary Oliver points to the strange disconnect between his ‘cold and dreamless’ world (in life and in death), and the beautifully wild yet peaceful flowers now covering the ground above his coffin. The contrast couldn’t be more painful.

As a young girl, Mary Oliver endured brutal mistreatment from her father. Her poem entitled “Rape” leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s relationship with her father didn’t disappear. She comes back to it in several poems in this collection.

In this poem, she points to a sad irony about her father. Here he rests, “cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” Clueless about what he missed in life and, even more painful, what he missed in his daughter’s life. All because of his undying bitterness.

The poem reminds me of my father, and the circumstances that shaped his outlook on life and on me. What poem might I write about my father? What might be his identifying characteristic? If not ‘bitterness,’ then what? And how does that affect me today?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 September 2019
Photo found at fineartamerica.com

I Worried | Mary Oliver

Here’s a prose poem from Mary Oliver, written in her later years. My brief comments follow.

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 I gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

© 2010 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

Ironically, I found this poem in the front pages of Katy Butler’s book, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. It seemed a strange way to begin a book that helps navigate end of life decisions. Are you tired of working on this or that document, or making choices about things that may or may not happen? Just go out into the morning, and sing whether you think you can sing or not!

Which is exactly what I’m learning to do. No, it doesn’t come naturally. Worry comes naturally, sometimes dressed up as Work I must accomplish today. Not for a paycheck, but perhaps to ensure my peace of mind?

Yet even all the completed medical and other documents duly signed and filed in their appropriate places can never ensure full peace of mind. Sometimes I need to get outside my list-driven environment, enjoy the day and sing.

A calm mind. Most appropriate in a distressed world over which we have limited control.

Happy Monday to each of you, with a prayer for those living in distress this day and night, and calm courage to reach out as we’re able.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 September 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

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