Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Mary Oliver

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

The Journey | Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver talking about herself in this poem? What do you think? My comments follow.

The Journey

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

© Mary Oliver, reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 114-15, Published by Beacon Press 1992

The first time I read this poem I was puzzled. Instead of writing directly about herself, Mary seems to be writing to someone else. Or to a past version of herself?

This poem was first published in 1986 in a collection called Dream Work. The current collection includes 18 poems from Dream Work. They focus on Mary Oliver’s personal life. Not a subject she’s particularly thrilled to write about. And yet….

Without her personal story, it’s possible to think Mary Oliver enjoyed a charmed life of wandering in the woods. Visiting ponds and streams. Watching foxes, fish and birds. Lying in fields of Spring flowers. Making notes in her hand-made notepads. Living a magical life in her chosen world that celebrates nature, beauty in the presence of death, and the perfectly sad and glorious ending of each season.

Wrong. Mary Oliver worked hard to ‘save’ her life. She left home. Literally. She walked away from her father’s abusive behavior, and from voices that incessantly cried out for her to mend their lives. Death followed by what? Nothing?

This poem celebrates Mary’s decision to make a clean break. It also celebrates what she found along the way. Something she didn’t even know she had: a life of her own and a voice of her own.

For that alone, I’m grateful. I’m also challenged to keep listening for my own voice in unexpected places.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2019
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Warren Criswell, found at saatchiart.com

A quick update

First, Longwood Gardens photos are in the works. Yesterday D and I played hooky and went to Longwood Gardens. Our way of celebrating the end of a long streak of heat waves, rain and heavy winds. D’s photos are on my computer, and I’m already plotting a photo post. The photo at the top is a little taste!

Second bit of blog-related news. I’ve created a Mary Oliver category. I haven’t discarded or forgotten about Emily Dickinson. I am, however, especially drawn to Mary’s poetry right now, and anticipate more posts about the way they intersect with my life.

Third bit. I’ve just begun going through over 100 posts on Death and Dying. I’ve created the category, and will continue populating it with old and new material. I’m eager to think and write about life with death on the horizon. Not that that’s anything new….

And finally, I’m making peace with myself one day at a time. In general, that means taking things a bit slower than usual, and spending time in the attic each day. It’s a fabulous place to relax, read, write, do nothing at all, or think about the wonderful people who have helped bring me up whether they knew it or not.

Hugs to those who need them, and smiles to everyone whether you want them or not!

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 July 2019
Photo taken by DAFraser, 24 July 2019, Longwood Gardens’ Waterlilies

Crossing the border

Crossing the border between
then and now my mind seems
intent on rehearsing who I am
and what I have or have not done
with my one “wild and precious life”

Endless rehearsals pace back
and forth through my head repeating
and expanding a long list of reasons
why I should exist as this woman
living on an overcrowded earth

I watch from the sidelines as
unquiet thoughts spin out of
control restless and insistent
saturating the air with reasons
that will convince my interrogator
and calm my agitated spirit

This past week I worked on documents for my new palliative care doctor. I also spent more time walking in the attic than usual, thanks to our latest round of high heat and humidity.

Walking without the radio or other distractions, I found myself rehearsing much of my past history. Sometimes I resorted to singing out loud in order to stop the endless cycle of data and explanations about who I am and who I am not. And why things were the way they were.

Beginning palliative care is is about what happens next. Much of my personal work has been about looking back, making sense of what sometimes seemed to be nonsense. To that I’m now adding learning to number my days. Concretely, not just in the abstract. How will I value each remaining day for the gift it will be?

On Monday afternoon D and I will meet for the first time with my new palliative care doctor. And I’ll begin making concrete this last chapter of my life. I’m excited and a bit on edge. And yes, I’ll definitely have a report or a poem.

In case you wondered, I have Mary Oliver to thank for her wonderful question to each of us.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

©Mary Oliver, final lines of “The Summer Day,” p. 94
New and Selected Poems, Volume One
Published by Beacon Press 1992

Thanks for listening!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 July 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

The Ponds

Here’s a thought-provoking poem from Mary Oliver, followed by my comments.

The Ponds

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them—

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away—
and that one is a lumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

©Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. One., pp. 92-93
Beacon Press, Boston, 1992

Of course imperfections aren’t necessarily nothing. Sometimes they’re distress calls. Or signs of neglect.

Still, like Mary Oliver, I also want and need to see big picture beauty in a water lily pond, garden or meadow. Because, as she puts it, “I want to believe [And I do!] I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.”

The mystery, it seems to me, isn’t simply about water lilies. It’s also about us. Especially now. Not simply because each of us is beautiful, but because taken together, we reflect the light of a mystery beyond ourselves. Something beyond our beauty, our flaws, and our “unstoppable decay.” To say nothing of the muskrats (whose days are also numbered) looking to take us down one by one.

Especially now.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 July 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

Death and The Kookaburras

First, a poem from me, a few comments, and a poem from Mary Oliver.

One loss at a time
The challenge is laid down
So transparently
The message cannot
Be mistaken

It’s time to let go
To hold each day lightly
To give up great expectations
And the hope of getting
To the top of Mt. Everest
Or even within its foothills

Yet my body and soul
Cry out for more –
More time
More energy
More beauty
More music
As greed sets in
Along with hunger
For what I think
I’ve lost
Or never had

I’ve been unusually restless this past week. It was wonderful to connect with my new palliative care doctor on the phone. Now I’m waiting for my first face-to-face conversation, and find I’m uneasy.

Is this really what my life has come to? Something in me wants to hang on just a bit more, even though I know it’s time to begin letting go and shifting my attention and energy to what’s yet possible. On the other hand, who knows what Mt. Everest I’ll yet climb or even fly above in ways I never dreamed of.

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Kookaburras” has haunted me for the past week.

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

©Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, p. 87
Published by Beacon Press , Boston, 1992

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? The struggle between hanging on and letting go of what we were never meant to imprison. Not ourselves, not other people, and not kookaburras who just want to fly home to their river.

I want to let my spirit, my soul fly home. I also recognize the coward and procrastinator in me, wanting to say no, and walking away without unlatching the cage.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 July 2019
Photo found at australianmuseum.net.au

Bittersweet

A passage from one of Mary Oliver’s poems came to mind Wednesday evening as I wrote in my journal. On Tuesday we heard our two granddaughters speak to gathered friends and family for half an hour each. They talked about their lives, their dreams, and their experiences in school and on trips here and abroad. Each is sensitive, observant, articulate, and determined to follow her dreams.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal. The passage from Mary Oliver’s poem follows.

It’s all so bittersweet – watching our children and grandchildren grow up – time taken from my life as their lives expand outward – and mine exhales, drawing energy inward – already dying. Maybe becoming elderly is about becoming expendable – moving over or moving on to make room for the next generations.

Mary Oliver says it well – most of our ‘lives’ we’re not even here – the great before and the ageless after of a flash in the darkness.

Tonight I’m weary, and my heart is letting me know it’s running out of steam. Yes, it’s late in the day. It’s also late in my life. Teach me to number my days. To love life, and relinquish what I can no longer carry.

I wonder how my highly sensitive self is figuring into my health as I age? I feel more reflective, and content to do nothing in particular except feel my feelings and rest my body and mind.

It was difficult to watch one granddaughter’s highly sensitive self yesterday as she spoke. I wanted to hug her and tell her how wonderful it is to have this awkward gift.

Here are the closing stanzas from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine.” She’s urging us to pause and Look! Our time on this earth is short. Pay attention Now! to the hummingbird, the roses, the lilies floating in the black ponds….

Look! for most of the world
is waiting
or remembering—
most of the world is time

when we’re not here,
not born yet, or died—
a slow fire
under the earth with all

our dumb wild blind cousins
who also
can’t even remember anymore
their own happiness—

Look! and then we will be
like the pale cool
stones, that last almost
forever.

© Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, pp 56-57
Published by Beacon Press (1992)

Tomorrow is commencement day. I’m getting ready by chilling out, breathing deeply, and taking in this beautiful weather before it disappears.

Happy Friday, and thanks for visiting!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 June 2019
Photo found at georgiawildlife.com

giddy about the sun

I’m giddy about the sun
This strange and brilliant visitor
From another planet

Sitting at the kitchen table
My mind races through the house
Flinging windows and shades open

Shouts of happy recognition
Rise in gratitude for this visitor
Inviting me outside to play

I know warm weather will come—likely bringing unwelcome ultra-warm weather. But so what? Today I want to feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and witness the first bits of spring breaking through slushy mud and still-frozen ground.

This morning’s mail brought a new volume of Mary Oliver’s poems. D is making a multi-bean soup in the slow cooker. Smudge is asleep on our bed, comforted by my pajamas. What more could I ask for?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 February 2019
Photo found at kinooze.com

Evensong

My feet ache
relieved and resting
The humidifier hums
in the background
Soft cotton
envelopes each leg

Pajamas are my
evening friend
holding me close

Wrapped in
my mother’s shawl
breath comes
and goes easy

The old house creaks
beneath D’s feet

Whatever today
was about slips
away with each
exhaled breath
cleansing this
body I call home
sweet home

Today I went to see my Lucy Pacemaker heart doctor. As expected, my irregular heartbeat is growing with each passing year. I don’t like it. I am, however, grateful for each day and night I’m given.

While sitting in the doctor’s office I reviewed my recent journal entries. Then I read and reread a chapter from Upstream, a collection of Mary Oliver’s essays and poems. She describes how she moved beyond difficult situations of her childhood. Her solution was twofold: immersion in the natural world, and in the world of literature. As she describes it, these were “the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place” (p. 14).

So here I am, near the end of my life, finding myself living more and more in the worlds of music and writing. My own and that of others. My pared-down yet equally exciting (to me) version of upstream living. Leaving behind, yet drawing on the unsolvable puzzle of my childhood almost without noticing it.

I wrote the poem above just before Christmas. There’s something magical about capturing in words the simple wonders of my life. I might enjoy wandering in a forest somewhere. However, I choose to stay close to home. Close to D and Smudge. Close to the bone. Close to this last fling. Close to my journal and my heart.

Thanks for reading and listening.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 February 2019
Photo of Milky Way Night Sky found on pixabay

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