Posts Tagged ‘Mary Oliver’


timeThis morning I have been reading Ecclesiastes. For non-Biblical types, that’s the collected wisdom of Solomon, son of David, who supposedly was the wisest person in the whole world. Solomon had this to say about life: it sucks, and then you die and someone else gets your stuff.

Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and it seems like an odd choice for the days after Christmas when we’re all so full of joy and light and turkey that we could explode. But the older we get, my friends, the more we realize that nothing lasts—not the lights, tinsel, trees, or even the families that gather within our walls.

On Christmas Eve, my precious aunt shut her eyes forever on this world. Her son, who had been keeping a familiar vigil, sent me a text message: “She’s gone.”

Now listen. A lot of people jump straight on that “She’s not gone, she’s waiting for you in Heaven” train, but that one doesn’t stop here. Sorry. She’s gone. She is not here. She will not be here any more. This is what Emily Dickinson—and I can’t believe I’m quoting her—meant when she said that “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell.”

To jump on the pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by train is to circumvent something really important. Nothing lasts. King David said that, and Solomon, and Shakespeare has said that, and my own favorite, Mary Oliver, as if poets have some pipeline to truth that we have probably shut off out of fear. We use drugs, alcohol, technology, anything to drown out the awareness of our impermanence. Time is a lot of things, but the one we try hardest to push away is that it is relentless.

My favorite memory of my aunt, and I have lots, is of her when she is a lot younger than I am now, and she is staring at her sons and my sister and me in horror because we are playing penny-ante poker with .22 caliber shells instead of pennies. She ruined a perfectly good poker game, although possibly she preserved our heedless little lives.

. . . For a while.

For once, I am not going to be a prescriptivist. Solomon said everything we do and are is pretty much meaningless. Then I think about my aunt, gentle and patient and funny and wise. Solomon took the long view and, okay, in another generation or two nobody’s going to remember much about us. But the short view is the one that’s important, and in that perspective, her memory is more precious than my comfort.

Today’s true thing is that I will savor those memories even though they sting a bit, and then try to take pleasure in this day and live in a way that makes other people glad I was around. Solomon said that God has set eternity in people’s hearts, and I have no idea what that means, but for today I am aware that I have zero bright December 27, 2013 mornings left, so this one is precious.



Why I Hate Literature

This morning, I am scrubbed as raw as a peeled potato.  Life always does that to me.  It’s not death that’s the problem, exactly.  We all get one of those apiece.  It’s being alive, and the awful knowledge that, as Porky Pine once said to Albert Alligator, “It ain’t nowhow permanent.”

And fiction, particularly “serious” fiction, is about as protective as a potato peeler. I have spent the morning with John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Toni Morrison.  They are not, on the whole, the companions one might wish for on a day like this, when the sky itself weeps, and the sun is dark, and I have shattered my own routine because its bars have, like those of a cage, suddenly become visible to me.

In a couple of hours, I will poke my students in the brain, if possible, about “Gimpel the Fool” and the prophet Hosea, and about the surreal, plastic world of “The Swimmer” as Neddy Merrill leaves his past floating behind him in the Lucinda River.  We will talk about the nature of reality and truth and possibly somebody will have that moment of insight where he or she will realize that Gimpel is not really a fool and Neddy is not really swimming home.

It just seems a little pointless today.  This rain outside is a steady downpour, tapping on the new leaves of the pear tree.  In our tiny town, we are awash in broken hearts this morning following the untimely death of one of our own.  We do not need to read Sula to understand loss.  I wish I could give it all a miss, stay home, play the piano, pray.  Poetry comes to my rescue.  Here, in violation of any number of laws, is what helps:

The Summer Day     Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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