Peering into a deep well
I inch closer to the edge
One evening after another
In the moment, but not quite,
Old memories stir feelings
Captured in forgotten photos
Who am I now? What did I leave behind? Is there any logic to this madness of yesterday’s joy and today’s old-age awkwardness?
I want to hang onto today and yesterday. Not content with one or the other. I want to see, remember, smell, taste and breathe in the beauty and pain of this world, captured in fleeting moments of wonder, distress, and despair.
The last several weeks have been rough. Marked by several dark nights filled with raging winds, pounding rain, and unpredictable bolts of lightning.
They’ve also been filled with beauty: songbirds waking each day with their dawn songs, a red-breasted male grossbeak sitting on our porch rail, a large bushy red-tailed fox trotting nonchalantly through our back yard, and the full moon casting a nighttime spotlight on our neighbor’s front yard.
Thank you for your visit. Especially during these unpredictable days and nights of uncertainty, fear and unexpected losses.
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
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?
Starting from scratch
And working her butt off
Dreaming of something
From ashes or nothing at all
She listens and suggests
From the back row
Occasionally from the podium
Often without a map
Or a mentor
Doing what needs to be done
Bringing people together
Focusing on the end game
Encouraging without pretending
All is well when it is not
For ways around roadblocks
Listening calmly to contrarians
Then opting for creativity
Rather than neat outlines
Taking risks small and large
Living with consequences
Finding a way forward
Through next steps
All this and more
Who is this woman?
Do I recognize her?
Try looking in the mirror.
Several days ago a friend of many years challenged me to do two things.
First, read a letter I received in the 1960s. It was from Erwin N. Griswold, former Dean of Harvard Law School. He left to serve as Solicitor General of the USA under President Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Griswold sent the letter on the occasion of my retiring as a secretary in the Dean’s Office. He couldn’t be there for the party. I still weep when I read it. You can read it here.
Second, make a list of all the ways I’ve been a pioneer. I was flabbergasted. I’ve sometimes thought of myself as ‘the first’ this or that. I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer. Yet, as my friend pointed out, I’ve been in a wilderness often, which is precisely where the food is.
Yesterday I spent all morning working on the meaning of ‘pioneer’ and making a list. Four things are clear to me today.
I was and still am a pioneer. Not just in my family, but in churches, in classrooms, in positions of leadership, and in my volunteer work with Dawn’s Place.
Ever since I was born I’ve gone against the flow, internally if not externally.
Today has been more than a bit somber. My most recent burning memory of Representative John Lewis is his sterling leadership during last fall’s Congressional impeachment investigation of Donald Trump. The 5-minute video above shows him supporting further impeachment investigation.
And now Mr. Lewis is gone. He was the last Black leader living who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, shortly before the 1963 Civil Rights Act became the law of the land. In his speech (below) he clarifies his opposition to the legislation.
The young Lewis is speaking to citizens gathered in Washington to demand racial justice. John Kennedy was President. As you can hear, John Lewis wasn’t one to tone things down. He speaks without apology, and without pretending the proposed legislation was what Black people needed. He was correct.
This nation has lost one of its true patriots. If you’d like to read and hear more, Vox has posted six speeches (including the two above) that capture John Lewis’ remarkable service to this country. You can find them here.
In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a small, steady stream of visitors to an earlier post on Rhiannon Giddens. It featured “Julie,” Giddens’ song about a black daughter and a white mother living in North Carolina during the brutal 1898 uprising against and slaughter of Black people. As she put it, “Julie” is her way of conveying the complexities of her own life as the daughter of a white mother.
A few days ago I listened to Giddens’ rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” (above). I heard this haunting song frequently when I was growing up the Deep South. Now, having heard Giddens’ stunning interpretation, it’s playing at will in my psyche, night and day.
I’m guessing most of us struggle with multiple identities, as well as what it means to be human in one setting or another. I find myself bouncing back and forth between the ignorance and naivete of my childhood in the South, and my radically different experience of life here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Especially when I was working at the seminary, and now experience in my home church.
In many ways, going home sounds like heaven. Partly because it would be the first safe home of my life. The first place where I know I don’t have to prove who I am and am not, or endure the agony of not knowing who I am. To say nothing of concerted attempts to put and keep me in my place. Or the internal desire to look the other way when someone else is supposedly being put in his or her place.
The difference, of course, is that I’m not mixed race, black, or facing the realities my black and mixed race friends and their families face daily. This human-made, aching chasm in our nation is begging for attention and understanding. The kind persuasively conveyed in music that softens us and invites us into a stranger’s perspective and our own self-examination.
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
And then, so sweetly, of every goodness also to be remembered.
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.
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–
Covid-19 has been disproportionately deadly to populations already struggling to survive. Especially, but not only, Black Americans. The blatant killing of yet another Black citizen is pushing us to the brink of chaos.
I’ve spent the last few days listening to and reading responses to our current situation. Today I’m passing along a few notes, and the link above to Pastor Charles Montgomery’s excellent discussion this morning. It’s well worth watching.
Pastor Montgomery begins with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question: Where do we go from here: chaos or community? (The title of his last book before his assassination in 1968)
If we want to understand what’s happening today, Pastor Montgomery suggests we begin with three reasons for our current chaos.
polarization caused by fear
politics fueled by anger (and driven by fear)
radicalization inflamed by injustice, real or perceived
These three tensions are pulling at the fabric of our nation. Trying to tear us apart.
What’s the alternative? Choosing not to live in fear, but to love God and one another.
This echoes the question Jesus asked one of the religious elite, and then answered with a story-question, Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37). The unexpected answer: The Samaritan who dared to stop and become the neighbor of a Jewish man beaten up, left to die on the side of a road, and bypassed by the religious elite. Go thou, says Jesus, and do likewise.
The Samaritan got involved. Not out of sympathy, but moved by empathy. He understood what it was like to be ignored, belittled, or even left dying on the side of the road.
Furthermore, he didn’t waste any time. He used what he had at hand, and did what he could until this man was healed.
If I want to be like the Samaritan, Rev. Montgomery suggests I ask myself questions like these:
What captures my attention when I see someone different who’s in trouble? What’s the first thought that goes through my mind?
Who are my friends? Not just at church, but in my neighborhood, on Facebook or WordPress.
With whom do I talk? What do I read? (Or do I cocoon myself in a ‘safe’ small world?)
Distance is a barrier to peace. Empathy comes close to pain without minimizing, ignoring, dismissing, or questioning the other person’s character. It remains present, asks questions, offers support, prays, dresses wounds, uses what it has at hand.
Empathy doesn’t try to fix the situation. Take charge. Pontificate. Or ignore.
Please pray for us, and for millions of others in similar situations.
Conductor Emeritus Kenneth Jennings (1925-2015) leads over 900 choir alumni during the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the St. Olaf Choir in June of 2011.
Most of you probably know this hymn as “Fairest Lord Jesus.” It was my father’s favorite hymn, known to him by its older name, “Beautiful Savior.”
When I’m dying, I want music to carry me away. Then I want to join the choir. I want to sing music like this. Music that makes all things and all voices beautiful. I want tears to flow. Mine. The way they did this morning when I listened to this on You Tube.
I don’t understand why hymns like this reach so deeply into me. But there it is. And here we are today, surrounded by deaths of many kinds. Bodily and spiritual death. Death of hope and trust. Never easy, especially when it seems to be piling on without mercy.
I hope you enjoy listening to this amazing choir following the lead of their beloved conductor Emeritus, Kenneth Jennings. Like angels, they’re singing together on key, accompanied only by each other, following their leader. A force together that they could never be on their own.
Here are the lyrics as sung by the choir, following their opening wordless rendition of the tune.
Fair are the meadows, Fairer the woodlands,
Robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer;
He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.
Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, Praise, adoration,
Now and forevermore be Thine!
I pray you’ll find beauty and music in the week ahead.
Have you seen and heard this gift from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra?
Even if you have, watch it again! As often as needed. I had tears streaming down my face by the end. Kudos to the wonderful artists who put this together for all of us. And to Beethoven for making it all possible.
Today is make-a-creative-soup day. That means a great big pot that will last for several days. It’s also laundry day for all towels and washcloths. Plus make a veggie smoothie for today and tomorrow. With music in the background — the best part of all.
Praying for peace and health in this country. Peace of heart, mind, soul and body, plus sanity and clear vision for medical personnel who oversee this pandemic day after day.