Category Archives: mary oliver

Feeling alive. Or, thank you Gwen Frostic and Mary Oliver (yet again).

I’ve been wanting to write about one of my favorite parts of summer, and since I just finished making my way through Mary Oliver‘s New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, I figured it was the perfect time. One of the conclusions I’ve come to about maintaining sanity while busy is how necessary it is to slow down and connect with the things that make us feel alive. I’ve written a lot about the stress of my last year (school-year time, not calendar) and the different ways my summer helped me crawl out of that anxiety-ridden time.

In the middle of August I drove some friends to northern Michigan to where one of them has spent time every summer since childhood. The five days of our trip were spent doing all the things I love: driving on country roads with good music, buying copious amounts of produce and cider donuts from road side stands, the sounds of the woods, starring at water, riding in a boat, cooking and drinking wine, and being amazed at nature.

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The Cottage Book Shop, Anna’s boat, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Cherry Republic

One of the highlights was going to the studio of local artist Gwen Frostic, who passed away in 2001, but whose studio has been kept up and running. She created woodblock prints inspired by the landscape around her, and their stunning simplicity was a perfect pairing for my love affair with the words of Mary Oliver; both are inspired by not just nature, but nature’s capacity for healing and reflection.

From “Morning Poem” 

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn't walk away without.

Two of the dozen Gwen Frostic woodblock prints I couldn’t walk away without.

From “Starfish”:

It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful:

all summer

my fear diminished

as they bloomed through the water

like flowers, like flecks

of an uncertain dream,

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world.

A few weeks later, I drove upstate to Windflower Farm for their CSA campout with a dear friend and along the way we ate at my favorite restaurant of all time, dropped in on a show by the inspiring artist Lisa Congdon, and drank up the farmlands around the Hudson River Valley. We spent so much time talking about how it was worth it to go out of our way to see Lisa’s show, and to talk to Maggie at her cafe, and to be with Farmer Ted on his land: being around people who create inspires creation.

Maggie's Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, artist Lisa Congdon, Windflower Farm

Insert school and grad school starting right after the farm trip. Needless to say, I rareIy had time to slow down and create. I’m tired of this being my story of a school year. When I felt tired, I sat on the couch and tried to catch up on The Good Wife in the name of “relaxation”. Nothing against The Good Wife (you know I love my shows), but even though I was technically relaxing, my soul didn’t feel alive. Thankfully, Daniel and I went on a walk to Prospect Park this morning and talked almost the whole time about art (please look at his work) and cultivating a life that helps create it. I found myself snapping pictures of leaves and trees I wanted to draw. It’s amazing how if I do the things I truly love, my desire to create increases. And in turn, I feel more full. And relaxed. And alive.

So, my goal for this favorite season of my life is to choose to spend time walking to the park or to the river. To not let tiredness or busyness be an excuse for the kind of relaxation that doesn’t really relax in the end. I’ve been reading a lot about the art of attention: being present and noticing the beauty of life around me. Hopefully that will weave its way into it all, too.

The July of nonfiction and fire escape porches.

I stumbled across a poem by my hero Mary Oliver yesterday, and it’s an interesting place to begin as I think of my summer, and though it wasn’t in my mind yet, these lines encompass the theme of the past two months:

it is a serious thing /just to be alive /on this fresh morning /in the broken world.

{my people}

{my people}

When I teach reading, I tell students to pay attention to the actions of the characters–that they often speak deeply into what’s really going on or what they really need. I booked a ticket to leave New York City the day after school got out. That is exactly where I was mentally and what I needed. To go home and breathe. And, of course, to laugh, eat grilled food, and drink wine.

 

In July I realized that sometimes simply reading to escape is necessary–I disappeared into more than a dozen books and didn’t write about a single one. In a more physical sense, after spending ten days on my parents’ porch, I felt trapped just thinking about my Brooklyn apartment and its lack of one, so I threw caution {the potential $125 fine} to the wind and turned our fire escape into a porch. This mainly involved taking a beach chair out the kitchen window, staring down squirrels, ignoring the jackhammers in the front of the building, and breathing through my mouth to avoid the sour dishwashing air from the restaurant below. BUT. It was outdoor space and I happily spent almost every morning reading nonfiction on it: Long Life by Mary Oliver, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre.

{my "porch"}

{my “porch”}

The threads I began to see in these books was the value of pausing to create meaning from the world around me. I often pause to create meaning from the books I’m reading, but it was like I needed the fiction to remain an escape and to start reflecting on, interpreting, and being more. So, I unintentionally took a writing sabbatical and found myself joining my husband in making art on our coffee table, pursuing meditation, and learning how to play chess (and, let’s be real, watching Major Crimes and two seasons of The Americans). I got to the beach and to the woods with a dear friend. I wandered the city with Daniel.

Interestingly, on one of my last July mornings on the porch (August brought a week intensive class at Columbia, traveling, and now beginning to think about the school year), I found myself looking at the vine-y plants that migrated from the fence below, up the walls of my building and around the fire escape and saw that in order to climb, they shoot out these tiny arms which wrap themselves around anything nearby. I realized that my time in July was just that: reaching for the truths to sustain my spirit. Here are some of the ones that stayed with me:

“Where have these moments of reflection gone in our modern lives? Certainly not to the radio or television that we turn on as soon as we get home, or the screens that enslave us. Rather than being ways of ‘taking our minds off things,’ these actions, particularly when they become reflexes, stop our minds being rooted–the exact opposite of what reflection is all about.” (Looking at Mindfulness, page 93)

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” (The Faraway Nearby, page 4)

[The earth’s] intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them. For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” (Long Life, page 25)

It always seems to comes back to Mary Oliver: that though the world is broken, it is certainly beautiful. And there is meaning to be made.

Your place in the family of things: picture books and poetry

artist Brian Rea for NYT

artist Brian Rea for NYT, February 26, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning, I read last week’s the Modern Love column in the New York Times and it was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve read in a long time. It is about a mother with an aching teenage daughter, and how she starts putting poems in her shoes from authors (including Mary Oliver, my favorite) who have “been in pain before and struggled to find hope” and put it into words.

This season-semester has been one that feels long and difficult mostly because I signed up for too many graduate school classes at a time where my daily work feels its most challenging.  And because, winter. But I was reminded this week of the difference a good story can make when I read Fox, basically the most poignant picture book ever made, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks to my 8th graders. They were anxiously, nervously, crazily awaiting the arrival of their high school admittance letters (which are shamefully delivered to school and not home), but we took a period to read this story aloud, talk about developing themes, and in turn talk about life, of course. It was incredible how silent and absorbed and responsive they were to this story about a dog with a missing eye and a bird with a burnt wing.

Last night a dear friend and I were discussing the paralyzing feeling of working with teenagers whose lives feel harder than anything we can imagine (she helps run a mentoring program), and knowing that there’s not a formula or behavior pattern we can teach them that can fix all that’s on their plate. We started thinking of what we can really offer, and I found myself basically reciting Fox to her as we talked over tacos. As my students and I discussed this week, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal and shame, of hope and the courage to face what lies ahead. And as we escaped into the story, our class discussions landed on some beautiful truths about processing hardship, facing mistakes, and building friendships that are rooted for storms. And my friend and I, avid readers with bleeding hearts, were reminded again of the power of story and words.

I’ll end with one of the poems referenced in the Modern Love essay, Wild Geese, one that I happened to listen to Mary Oliver read and discuss in a podcast last week. In what feels like a dreadfully long winter, today I am grateful for writers who remind us we are not alone.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are,

no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

 

 

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver’s "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}
wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.
Oliver’s work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down.
I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder–especially when they don’t cost a dime–is a game changer.