I’ve been reading and discussing Parker Palmer’s new book, “On the Brink of Everything,” recently, and with great benefit. Many of my discussions seem to return to a portion of a poem, which I share below. Its insight requires no elaboration.
“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”
This is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, which ends with one of the most important questions we ever could ask ourselves. I love how she frames it.
The Summer Day
“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?”
This part of a Mary Oliver poem deeply resonates, at least with me.
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”
This Mary Oliver poem reminds me how such a complex universe requires multiple ways of knowing, and how our preconceptions sometimes influence what is possible in our perceptions.
The World I Live In
“I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.”
The older I get, the more I am (to my surprise) drawn to poetry. When I read the Bible, I spend more and more time in the Psalms. A few years ago, I shared my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Recently, I finished Mary Oliver’s book on “Devotions.”
Mary Oliver is best known for her nature poetry, and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. For those who don’t know anything about her, here is a rare interview on my favorite radio program / podcast, On Being.
I’m tempted to comment, but over the next week or so, I plan to just share some of my favorites of Mary Oliver’s poems. They speak for themselves.
Here’s the first, called “Swan.”
In his op-ed, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks calls “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” “the best modern book on belief.” The author, Christian Wiman, has struggled – for many years – with a rare form of cancer, and he lays bare many of his rawest thoughts in this book about many aspects of meaningful living, particularly in relation to faith. I think the best way to give a quick glimpse is to share a few select passages.
“No one ever believed in God without perceiving God.”
“To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”