Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Mary Oliver

Getting on with life

Though I haven’t fallen down the stairs, or tripped on my own feet, I haven’t figured out how to get up again and proceed with life.

Mary Oliver has a short poem in A Thousand Mornings (2012, p. 9) that says it all.

After I Fall Down the Stairs
At the Golden Temple

For a while I could not remember some word
I was in need of,
and I was bereaved and said: where are you,
beloved friend?

My biggest fear right now is that I’ll fall down: Where are you, beloved feet?

It’s official: I have peripheral neuropathy. It’s in early stages, though given the fire and pain in my feet and legs, you could fool me. My doctor has ordered an MRI scan. I’ve never had one. I don’t want one now. And yes, I’ll have it.

Last Friday I had two diagnostic tests in the office. Together, they took about an hour. The first (scroll down in this link) (NCS) was supposed to be the easiest. Electrodes on my feet and legs were prompted to shock me. Sometimes my responses were minimal—or even nothing at all. However, most of the time (a good thing) the shocks were just that. Horrific. I thought they would never end.

So…moving on to the second test (EMG). It was supposed to be the most difficult. The doctor inserted thin needles into my legs and feet, prompting me to use or flex various muscles while he listened for noise. Then he did one more poke in my lower spine. The needle pokes weren’t fun, but they were nothing compared to the shock tests. In the end these results were also mixed. Another sign that this disease is in early stages.

I was surprised that my problem most likely began in my lower spine, not in my feet or legs. The MRI will help clarify what’s going on.

In the meantime, my feet are a mixed blessing. I’m grateful to be sleeping well most of the time. The best exercise these days is a walk outside with D or riding my indoor bike. My feet smile and even tear up a bit when I’m playing the piano or working at my computer. Yet when I’m working in the kitchen or around the house, they scream at me for mercy. Especially in the afternoon and evening.

If you’re interested in knowing more about this disease that shows up in various forms, I’ve found these two books helpful:

Thank you for your prayers and good wishes! The photo at the top is one of my Longwood Garden favorites–posted today just because.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 Oct 2021
Photo taken by DAFraser in October 2019 at Longwood Gardens

I Happened To Be Standing | Mary Oliver

I haven’t been able to get Mary Oliver’s poem about prayer out of my mind. My comments follow.

I Happened To Be Standing

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver, pp 3-4
First published in the USA by Penguin Press, 2012
© 2012 by NW Orchard LLC

Dear Mary,

I happened to be sitting yesterday in the small waiting room of a physician’s office I didn’t want to visit. Well…I didn’t have an appointment with the doctor himself, but with one of his very talented assistants, both women of course. But see, I’m already off track.

While I sat for what turned into a longer than expected wait, I pulled out your small and wonderful book of poems, A Thousand Mornings.

I had at least a thousand prayers in me as I waited. Most were in the petition mode, given the nature of this first visit to a specialist I never thought I would meet. Now look at that…I’m off track yet again.

I didn’t read your poem once. I read it many times. It exposed my angst, fear, and resistance in that moment to turning my attention outward and upward, with or without a song.

It  was good I had to wait longer than I liked. I needed every second to find my way back to that small wren singing its little heart out—by way of your beautiful poem.

Gratefully,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 September 2021
Photo of Carolina Wren found at unsplash.com

I go down to the shore | Mary Oliver

Vernon River and Marshland, Georgia, USA

This short poem by Mary Oliver has been haunting me for over a week. My comments follow.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, p. 1
© 2012 by NW Orchard, LLC
First published by Penguin Press 2012

Compact. To the point. No nonsense. Nothing but truth.

That’s how I want to be. Not just in my writing, but in my ability to ‘hear’ what the sea and the sky, trees and birds, clouds and thunder are saying with their busy, if not always lovely work.

The last few months have offered several opportunities to say with Mary, “Oh, I am miserable.” Or better, “Growing older is much more daunting than I dreamed it would be.” Right now I’m inundated with forms to fill out for an appointment with a new doctor next week.

It would be nice to have a shore close by, with the sea “rolling in or moving out.” Or even the Vernon River of my childhood with its 24-hour cycle of ebb and flow.

On the other hand, every morning when I go down to our kitchen I’m greeted by birds, squirrels, chipmunks, flowering shrubs, trees, clouds, wind, rain or sunshine — all with work to do. Whether I feel like working or not. Whether I’m happy or not. Whether the sun is shining or not.

Thanks for stopping by today. And dare I say, in my lovely seashore voice, of course: “Excuse me, I have work to do.”

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 September 2021
Photo of the Vernon River and Marshland found at ogeecheeriverkeeper.org

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was born on 10 September 1935 and died on 17 January 2019. Though today’s world isn’t the world she knew, I hear this poem speaking truth about today’s realities. My comments follow.

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Published 2020 by Penguin Books in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (p. 49)
Copyright 2017 by NW Orchard LLC
First published in A Thousand Mornings, 2012

I can’t read this poem without thinking about today’s world. We aren’t simply on the cusp of late fall and winter weather. We’re witnessing with our eyes and hearts the end of an era. The title of the poem is heavy with innuendo.

Mary looks at the changing of seasons and points to the goodness of what doesn’t always seem good enough or lovable enough. Who loves to see flowers wilting, or dry old leaves falling to the ground? Or the warm light of day giving way to the icy darkness of each night?

Instead of mourning the passing of warm weather and beautiful fall days, Mary points to what it means to love this world. All of it. No matter what we think about changing seasons, or about the lovability of family, friends, strangers, or even ourselves.

What’s true of nature reminds me of human relationships. Like flower petals falling to the ground, we, too, move from one season, to the next. No one said this would be easy. Nor do we have any idea what beautiful surprises may be waiting just around the corner. Especially in the midst of unfathomable loss and anguish.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 September 2021
Photo by Sven Brogren found at fineartamerica.com

The Sixth Recognition of the Lord | Mary Oliver

Every summer the lilies rise
and open their white hands until they almost
cover the black waters of the pond. And I give
thanks but it does not seem like adequate thanks,
it doesn’t seem
festive enough or constant enough, nor does the
name of the Lord or the words of thanksgiving come
into it often enough. Everywhere I go I am
treated like royalty, which I am not. I thirst and
am given water. My eyes thirst and I am give
the white lilies on the black water. My heart
sings but the apparatus of singing doesn’t convey
half what it feels and means. In spring there’s hope,
in fall the exquisite, necessary diminishing, in
winter I am as sleepy as any beast in its
leafy cave, but in summer there is
everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,
the hospitality of the Lord and my
inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body
through this water-lily world.

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 28

Dear Mary,

Your poem made me weep. I don’t know if you intended this, but your “Recognition of the Lord” is also a recognition of your “beautiful, temporary body.”

I long for a permanent body as beautiful as your water-lily world. Not the kind of beauty that gets attention, but the beauty that’s carried in our hearts and souls. No matter what’s happening to our aging bodies.

I never thought of myself as beautiful when I was growing up. Even now, the most I can usually admit is that I’m acceptable. My husband of many years has trouble convincing me that to him, I’m more than acceptable.

What challenges me when I think about the water lilies, roses, peonies, lilacs, and azaleas is that they never complain about the astonishing brevity of their beauty. Here today and gone tomorrow.

Do I want to be like they are? Sadly, no amount of makeup or other ways we try to fool nature will ever satisfy me. So this lovely Recognition of the Lord, the One who created us, is incredibly demanding. Yes, we have our time to flourish, and yes, we fade. Like flowers of the field and water lilies.

If this is meant to comfort me in my aging body, I still have work to do. Letting go isn’t my favorite pastime. Which, I’m guessing, wasn’t yours, either.

Thank you for prodding my heart and mind today, and sharing your lovely and beautiful voice with all of us.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 July 2021
Photo taken by DAFraser at Longwood Gardens, June 2019

Storage | Mary Oliver

What about all the stuff we collect over the years? Mary Oliver knows. My comments follow.

When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
everything.
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

Published 2020 by Penguin Books in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (p. 7)
Copyright 2017 by NW Orchard LLC
First published in Felicity, 2015

I grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Back then (post-World War II) we were trained to make do with whatever was at hand. Throwing things away was not encouraged.

Almost anything could be repurposed, altered, or made to fit the need at hand. Glass bottles, aluminum tumblers that used to be filled with store-bought cottage cheese, lids for just about anything, hand-me-down clothes, kitchen utensils, and bits of old candle wax. Furthermore, if we didn’t need it, someone else probably did.

Here, however, Mary Oliver invites us to let go of stuff that takes up unnecessary space. Why? Because it makes room in our hearts for love, for the trees, and for the birds who own nothing.

Could it be that the stuff taking up space includes old attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and other human beings? These might also be lurking in boxes we’ve not examined or relinquished. Which leaves little if any room for the birds, for other human beings, or even for our own growth.

What would it take for us to soar and dance together in the sky?
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 June 2021
Video of Starling Murmuration found on YouTube

How would you live then? | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver puts us on the spot with whimsical questions we’ve likely never asked ourselves. My comments follow.

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks
flew in circles around your head? What if
the mockingbird came into the house with you and
became your advisor? What if
the bees filled your walls with honey and all
you needed to do was ask them and they would fill
the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just
past your bedroom window so you could listen
to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if
the stars began to shout their names, or to run
this way and that way above the clouds? What if
you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang
from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money? What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?

Poem written by Mary Oliver, first published in Blue Iris (2004)
© 2017 by NW Orchard LLC
Published in 2020 by Penguin Books in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, p. 167

Prisoners sometimes say what keeps them going is having a room with a view. A room with even a tiny window on a tiny plant or part of a tree branch. Like clock-work, these bits of nature became companions. They signal changing seasons, measure the speed of the wind, announce the time of day, or signal the coming darkness of night. All without a paycheck or a bonus for going the extra mile.

We humans seem glued to electronic devices, out of touch with the Garden our Creator handed over to us. Perhaps even out of touch with each other as precious women, children and men. “More precious, more meaningful than gold.”

I laugh when I read this poem. It’s full of whimsy. The kind that comes from close observation of nature and human nature, which Mary then turns into gold. Who wouldn’t like to see and experience Mary’s unexpected everyday wonders? Perhaps she’s inviting us to slow down and redirect our attention. Life is short.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich  Fraser, 22 May 2021
Photo found at npr.org

Loneliness | Mary Oliver

I still tear up when I read this lovely, perceptive poem from Mary Oliver. My comments follow.

Loneliness

I too have known loneliness.
I too have known what it is to feel
misunderstood,
rejected, and suddenly
not at all beautiful.
Oh, mother earth,
your comfort is great, your arms never withhold.
It has saved my life to know this.
Your rivers flowing, your roses opening in the morning.
Oh, motions of tenderness!

Poem written by Mary Oliver, first published in Blue Horses (2014)
© 2017 by NW Orchard LLC
Published in 2020 by Penguin Books in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, p. 23

When we’re born we have one chance. One chance to hit the jackpot of perfect parents, perfect siblings, perfect grandparents and all the other stuff that comes with perfection.

Yes, it includes gender, color of skin, color of hair, cuteness or ugliness, fat or skinny. You name it, and someone somewhere has known loneliness over these or other unchosen marks of our supposed superiority or lack thereof.

I grew up feeling like a fat girl with three younger sisters who were invariably cuter and more exciting than I was. To be fair, the preferred family term that stuck with me wasn’t ‘fat.’ It was ‘pleasantly plump.’

Every dress my mother made for me was ‘adjusted’ to mask my pleasant plumpness. My thin, straight hair was subjected to permanents every three months, even though the perms disappeared down the bathroom sink within two or three weeks. I never seemed to smile enough, laugh enough, or have enough girlfriends or boyfriends.

Yet thanks to our living arrangements, mother earth was always right there waiting for me. Unlike my father, she never told me to suck in my stomach, stand up straight, or wipe that frown off my face. Never.

Nor did she say “I told you so” when I was one of the last girls chosen for athletic teams. She just kept showing up, giving me time and space to turn my loneliness into freedom and a life of my own.

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for this heartwarming poem. I cried the first time I read it, and the second, and the third…. What a gift we have in rivers and roses. The handiwork of a Creator who understands us better than we understand ourselves.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 May 2021
Photo by Phil Banks, pixels.com

The Gift | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poem is for anyone who is, as she was then, aware of the clock ticking down. My comments follow.

The Gift

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.

So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.

Poem written by Mary Oliver, first published in Felicity (2015)
© 2017 by NW Orchard LLC
Published in 2020 by Penguin Books in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, p. 14

When I read this poem, I tear up. Of all the things on my daily to-do lists, not once have I included “Love…as once you loved, deeply and without patience.”

From my perspective, slowing down means giving up some of my most loved habits and wants. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The puzzle of my life shrinks with each passing day. If I can’t do this, can I do that? If not, what other options do I have?

Mary’s poem jolts me out of resignation mode. Yes, my walk, “that was confident and quick, has become slow.” Just ask D when we go out for a walk in the neighborhood. Or observe me agonizing between doing this or that. It isn’t because I don’t want to do this or that. It’s because I still want it all (or most of it!), yet don’t have the energy I had just yesterday.

I imagine Mary looking at me and saying,

So what?! Even if you slow down, that doesn’t mean your heart’s ability to love “deeply and without patience” has slowed down. If anything, it’s stronger now than ever!

And yes, time is running out. Today, in my imagination, I’m a tiny wren. The kind that can’t stop letting everyone know what a beautiful life this is, and how grateful I am for our Creator, and for you. Especially in the midst of pandemic tragedy, uncertainty, and diminishing energy.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 April 2021
Photo of House Wren found at welcomewildlife.com

Gethsemane | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver places this poem just after The Poet Thinks about the Donkey. Clearly an invitation to compare them. My comments follow.

Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

© 2006 by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 45

This one stings. How many vigils have I slept through? Or how often do I look the other way when injustices are playing out before my eyes.

When I was growing up, I had nothing but scorn for those three sleepy, self-absorbed disciples who couldn’t stay awake and keep watch for their friend Jesus. Surely they believed him. They’d already shown themselves capable of going to extreme lengths on his behalf.

Mark 14:32-42 doesn’t say Peter, James and John were reluctant to stay with him and keep watch. It says they couldn’t keep watch as Jesus asked them to do not once, but three times. Meanwhile, Jesus is left alone to face his coming betrayal.

In contrast, all nature (except human nature) was wide (wild!) awake that night. The only witnesses to Jesus’ agony, betrayal, trial, and eventually death on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem. The same city that welcomed him on the little donkey not a week earlier.

Mary suggests the stars and moon, trees and insects all kept watch that night. I like to think they offered some peace, perhaps even solace as he prayed, weeping and agonizing for all of us and for himself.

In the final stanza Mary offers grace to them, to herself and to us. The three disciples were “dear bodies” and “utterly human.” They weren’t deadly co-conspirators. They were human, just as we are. Weary.

Praying we’ll be as understanding about Jesus’ three companions as we are about ourselves, even as we lament Jesus’ coming betrayal by Judas, also one of his chosen disciples.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 April 2021
Painting found at touchstonemag.com

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