Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Mary Oliver

Everything isn’t always beautiful

This morning I’ve been thinking about Mary Oliver’s poem, Everlasting. On first reading, it may seem Mary is accepting and putting a positive spin on everything. Making things pretty.

Yes, there’s always hope for something better. Nonetheless, Mary focuses intently on what’s in front of her. Nothing is too fleeting or small to notice.

Much, if not most of her poetry captures the small details and stories of nature’s wonders. Yet she also describes the horror and ugliness of human behavior. Some of it shows up in nature as well, putting beauty at risk.

I picture her with a ‘camera’ (her ever-present writing notebook), in which she records everything she observes. The good, the beautiful, the bad, the unexpected and the ugly. She doesn’t flinch or soften the blow of reality.

Mary challenges me most when she lets her unvarnished truth go public. Truth about herself, her family, her father (A Bitterness), and small scenarios playing out in predatory behaviors in the non-human world (Small Bodies).

Beginning with me, there’s so much we humans hide, or carefully dress up to mask our neediness. Mary invites us to find ourselves in the midst of whatever we’re dealing with or see in the mirror. Sometimes it’s a real mirror. Other times, it can be the mirror of Mary’s poetry. Or the morning news. Or an unplanned trip to the doctor.

Hoping your day is thoughtful and rewarding, no matter the cost.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 July 2020
Invasive Mission Grass image found at 123RF.com

Invitation | Mary Oliver

This morning I’m tempted to rush into battle mode. So many things are going so wrong. This poem from Mary Oliver helped restart my day–though I’m still not sure what will come of it. My comments follow.

Invitation

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake  of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude—
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver; poem found on pp. 18-19 of Red Bird
Published by Beacon Press

The line from Rainer Maria Rilke is found at the end of his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. There, as here in Mary Oliver’s poem, we’re offered no clear interpretation of “You must change your life.”

Here’s how I’m thinking about it today:

This shared world, filled with beauty, seems intent on self-destruction. Would we throw it all away by refusing to act, just once, with beauty and courage? Do the unexpected? Change the conversation, or our knee-jerk reactions to things that annoy and offend us?

Perhaps the most courageous thing I can do today is as simple as a smile. Especially in tense or fearful situations. We say a smile is worth a thousand words. It’s what most of us are starving for every day. True, smiles won’t heal or resolve every problem. Nor are all smiles to be trusted.

Still, Mary Oliver challenges us to stop, listen and (I think) smile at these crazy beautiful goldfinches. They just can’t stop singing for sheer delight and gratitude! Trying, perhaps, to tell us something we desperately need to hear from each other?

Thanks for stopping by!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 July 2020
American Goldfinch songs found on YouTube

In the Evening, in the Pinewoods | Mary Oliver

Who knows the sorrows of the heart?
God, of course, and the private self.
But who else? Anyone or anything else?
Not the trees, in their windy independence.
Not the roving clouds, nor, even, the dearest of friends.

Yet maybe the thrush, who sings
by himself, at the edge of the green woods,
to each of us
out of his mortal body, his own feathered limits,
of every estrangement, exile, rejection—their
death-dealing weight.

And then, so sweetly, of every goodness also to be remembered.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, p. 63

A few weeks ago, out walking in the evening, I heard a wood thrush. One of the most haunting, beautiful sounds on earth. It was singing in the woods behind a nearby church and graveyard.

So many deaths right now. So many regrets, angers, crushing sorrow and disbelief.

I’ll never forget the cries of a mother Canadian Goose nesting just outside my office at the seminary. A noisy raptor had been circling and screaming for too many minutes. Father Goose was sitting nearby, clearly agitated, watching the sky from time to time.

Yes, the inevitable happened. The raptor stole the baby from the nest, unmoved by the parents’ frantic, furious cries and attempts to save their newly-hatched chick.

When I arrived at the seminary early the next morning, Mama Goose was sitting immobile, holding silent vigil on grass in the back courtyard of the seminary. Her loyal partner sat nearby, watching her and waiting. It looked and felt like a mourning ritual. They were there for most of the day before they flew away.

So much sorrow and anguish right now. That’s why I need to hear a wood thrush from time to time, along with its many neighbors calling out to me: There’s more to life than meets the eye. Mourn, have faith, and carry on.

Written a few days after the loss of one of my forty-nine first cousins, and in view of my own mortality and the current situation in this world.

Thanks for visiting.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 June 2020
Video found on YouTube

The Teachers | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, like the mockingbird above, wants our attention. My comments follow her poem.

The Teachers

Owl in the black morning,
mockingbird in the burning
slants of the sunny afternoon
declare so simply

to the world
everything I have tried but still
haven’t been able
to put into words,

so I do not go
far from that school
with its star-bright
or blue ceiling,

and I listen to those teachers,
and others too–
the wind in the trees
and the water waves–

for they are what lead me
from the dryness of self
where I labor
with the mind-steps of language–

lonely, as we all are
in the singular,
I listen hard
to the exuberances

of the mockingbird and the owl,
the waves and the wind.
And then, like peace after perfect speech,
such stillness.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, pp. 27-28

Yesterday I did nothing but what I felt like doing. This wasn’t about luxuriating. It was about sanity, clarity, and an airing of my restless need to DO something about everything going wrong in this world.

The list of possibilities seems endless because realities now facing us seem endless. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, every agony of the last centuries is now haunting us. Our day of reckoning? It remains to be seen how we’ll end up as a nation.

Nonetheless, I can’t afford to ignore the sight or exuberant sounds of mockingbird and owl, waves and wind, and stillness.

Listening to other people and to nature are learned skills. Mary Oliver’s poem suggests a connection, perhaps even a dance between listening to human voices and listening to nature. Not so we can defend ourselves, but so we, too, can be led

…from the dryness of self
where I labor
with the mind-steps of language–

lonely, as we all are
in the singular….

Thanks for visiting and reading.
Elouise 

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 June 2020
Singing Mockingbird found on YouTube
Recording belongs to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Acid | Mary Oliver

When I first read this poem, I shuddered. I didn’t like it. Then I discovered “Of the Empire,” which seems cut from similar cloth. My comments follow.

Acid

In Jakarta,
among the venders
of flowers and soft drinks,
I saw a child
with a hideous mouth,
begging,
and I knew the wound was made
for a way to stay alive.
What I gave him
wouldn’t keep a dog alive.
What he gave me
from the brown coin
of his sweating face
was a look of cunning.
I carry it
like a bead of acid
to remember how,
once in a while,
you can creep out of your own life
and become someone else—
an explosion
in that nest of wires
we call the imagination.
I will never see him
again, I suppose.
But what of this rag,
this shadow
flung like a boy’s body
into the walls
of my mind, bleeding
their sour taste—
insult and anger,
the great movers?

© 1992 by Mary Oliver
Found in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 130-131
Published by Beacon Press

I don’t think Mary’s intent was for us to like this poem. Instead, she describes an incident in Jakarta, and what happened to and within her. It’s so disturbing that she can’t forget it. As she puts it, she carries this image “like a bead of acid” so real that for a moment she’s able to become this child.

Mary puts her own experience in Jakarta out there like a mirror, and invites us to ponder her closing question. What am I going to do with this “shadow” flung into the walls of my mind? This image that bleeds  a “sour taste—insult and anger, the great movers.”

It doesn’t matter how I feel about the person in front of me. What matters is the blatantly visible truth, and how I choose to respond to it.

None of us can change the world single-handedly. Perhaps we could begin by noticing encounters that distress us, and go from there.

We don’t have to go abroad to understand this poem. It’s alive and well right now. The perfect storm is upon us here in the USA. Covid-19 plus yet another brutal murder of a black man.

Am I prepared to take this storm seriously? Or am I going to keep trying to get back to business as usual, distract myself to death, or worse–give up all hope of something better?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 31 May 2020
Flower Market in Jakarta found at TripAdvisor.com

Small Bodies | Mary Oliver

Here’s a small parable for today. What do you think it’s about? My comments follow.

Small Bodies

It is almost summer. In the pond
The pickerel leap,
and the delicate teal have brought forth
their many charming young,
and the turtle is ravenous.
It is hard sometimes, oh Lord,
to be faithful.
I am more boldly made
than the little ducks, paddling and laughing.
But not so bold
as the turtle
with his greasy mouth.
I know you know everything—
I rely on this.
Still, there are so many small bodies in the world,
for which I am afraid.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver
From her 2008 collection, Red Bird, p. 31
Published by Beacon Press 2008

Without top-dog animal predators, the natural world would cease to function efficiently. Without judicious pruning, trees wouldn’t develop strong, healthy branches or fruit.

But what about this ravenous, bold turtle with his greasy mouth? And what small bodies does Mary have in mind? Is this only about the pickerel, young teal and little ducks?

Mary Oliver opened her heart to nature – observing, describing and pondering what it might be telling or showing her. I imagine she discerns allegories or sees mirrors of what she experiences in human nature, including herself.

Given our current situation here in the USA, Mary might make connections between our pandemic world and the pond. We, too, have ‘so many small bodies’ vulnerable to predators and greasy-mouthed turtles. So many that, like Mary, I don’t know what to do or say except this:

I know you know everything—
I rely on this.

To be small and needy today is as dangerous as being a small duck in a ravenous turtle’s pond. Predatory behavior thrives at every level of governmental, public and private life. Especially when the pond is well-stocked with small bodies unable to fend for themselves, the number of ponds is drying up, and greasy-mouthed turtles grow ever larger and more ravenous.

Mary’s poem wasn’t meant to be a sermon. Still, it asks me to consider how I’m looking out (or not) for small bodies in our USA-style shrinking pond with its ravenous turtles.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 May 2020
Photo of baby Wood Ducks found at pinterest

Love Sorrow | Mary Oliver

This poem from Mary Oliver struck a chord in me. Partly due to the current pandemic, with its waves of sorrow. But also because of my personal history. My comments follow.

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Red Bird, a collection of poems
“Love Sorrow” is on p. 64

Dear Mary,

Your poem about loving sorrow brought back memories of my childhood and adult life. Especially things taken or withheld from me before I understood they were mine. Plus bits and pieces I lost or gave away throughout my life.

Sorrow, especially if it showed, was an indulgence I needed to give up. Or get over. What’s done is done. It won’t do to make my friends uneasy, or get into trouble with adults who wanted me to be someone else. I learned early to swallow or deny sorrow. Especially in public.

I think you would be horrified though not surprised at the world as it is today. We’re drowning in sorrow and anger, trying to figure out how this tsunami pandemic caught us so unprepared for death and dying, as well as living mindfully.

I don’t want to drown. I want to live and grow, especially now as time is running out.

Thank you for showing me how to befriend my sorrow. How to welcome her into my life, and learn to live with her as the child she is. And how to watch her begin to relax and grow into a strangely wonderful companion.

With gratitude and admiration,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 May 2020
Image found at 123rf.com

Of The Empire | Mary Oliver

This morning, in response to my post yesterday, I had an email from a friend. She sent a link to an essay by Susan M. Shaw, I’ll get to hope. For now, I need to sit in the ashes and mourn.  Dr. Shaw doesn’t spare our feelings. Nor does she minimize Mr. Trump’s role. Instead, she focuses on how we’ve colluded to bring ourselves to this point in history. I highly recommend it.

In her essay, Dr, Shaw includes a prose poem by Mary Oliver. It was new to me, and right on target. I found it helpful as a roll call of how we in this nation got from there to here.

Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

© 2008 by Mary Oliver
From her 2008 collection, Red Bird, p. 46
Published by Beacon Press 2008

I wonder what Mary Oliver would say to us today. Wishing for you some reasonably quiet time today to mourn, and ponder our culpability in this mess.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 April 2020
Image found at onthecommons.org

Heavy | Mary Oliver

Here’s a lovely, if difficult poem from Mary Oliver. It’s about death. It’s also about learning to be a survivor. I’m posting the poem as a tribute to Diane (Sister #3), born on this day, Easter Sunday 1949 (leap year). Diane died in February 2006 after living more than ten years with ALS. My comments follow.

Heavy

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger to admire, admire, admire
The things of this world
That are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Thirst, pp.53-54
Published by Beacon Press

Dying isn’t for the weak; neither is surviving. Not as victims of cruel fate or the current pandemic.

In the end, we often don’t have any choice but to live with what we’ve been given. True, we might prefer to die. But Mary challenges us to welcome grief and the opportunity to let it shape our lives for the better, without destroying them.

I also hear Mary inviting us to give ourselves time. Enough time to be surprised at ourselves when laughter and joy sneak in unannounced.

In her case, Mary unexpectedly discovers herself seeing nature differently. Not just as shows of beauty, but as survivors. Like us, the roses and sea geese also live out their love of life in the midst of harsh winds or steep waves.

What could be more invitational and healing that that? Not as a pill we take, but a possibility we choose to embrace.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 April 2020
Roses in the Wind painted by Anne Costello
Found at saatchiart.com

The Beautiful, Striped Sparrow | Mary Oliver

Here’s a thought-provoking poem from Mary Oliver about loneliness. My comments follow.

In the afternoons,
in the almost empty fields,
I hum the hymns
I used to sing

in church.
They could not tame me,
so they would not keep me,
alas,

and how that feels,
the weight of it,
I will not tell
any of you,

not ever.
Still, as they promised,
God, once he is in your heart,
is everywhere—

so even here
among the weeds
and the brisk trees.
How long does it take

to hum a hymn? Strolling
one or two acres
of the sweetness
of the world,

not counting
a lapse, now and again,
of sheer emptiness.
Once a deer

stood quietly at my side.
And sometimes the wind
has touched my cheek
like a spirit.

Am I lonely?
The beautiful, striped sparrow,
serenely, on the tallest weed in his kingdom,
also sings without words.

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Thirst, pp.29-30
Published by Beacon Press

I don’t mind being alone. I do mind the loneliness that sometimes comes with this pandemic. Instead of “almost empty fields” to roam, I have a smallish neighborhood full of children, parents, and senior citizens. Quite wonderful, actually.

It’s a short walk from our house to temporarily quiet spaces. The soccer field and playground area behind the elementary school is almost deserted. As is the church parking lot and cemetery directly across the street.

Then there’s our small, beautiful village park full of large old trees. The little kid playground and big kid tennis courts have been closed for now. But the softball/soccer field is wide open. A few families are out with their children and/or dogs burning off energy. And best of all, the trees and shrubs are sending out new growth and bright blossoms.

I’ve not had a deer stand “quietly at my side.” Still, I’ve felt the wind and bits of rain on my face, and heard the music of robins, woodpeckers and Carolina wrens welcoming spring. All topped off by relatively quiet air space, with a small trickle of commercial flights passing over to land at the Philly airport.

Wishing you a not-so-lonely Monday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 April 2020
Photo of Baird’s Sparrow found at birdsoftheworld.org

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