Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver Reads Poems at the Leid Center

Tall, slender, white hair falling over her face, stooped at the shoulders, unpretentious – she read about foxes, red birds, rivers, her dog, Percy. And a heron.

 

I saw it lift off the rail of a high balcony in the Leid Center. Unfolding her great wings,  the heron sailed over our heads and slipped neatly through the mottled blue curtain behind Miss Oliver.
I saw the tucked black foot of the swan in the dark water of the lake. I wondered if someone said there was a bear in the Truro woods, would the bear just maybe appear, because the town so much needed something wild and singular.

 

As she bowed over the podium picking out poems, Mary Oliver handed me my life on a platter. Lean over it, she said. Inhale its beauty. Taste its exotic flavors. Slurp the juice and let it run down your jowls.

 

The next day someone told me told about coming close to her own death, while flying north in a small plane. Ice began to form on the wings. Shaken to the core, she met her own fierce desire to live. “I don’t want to leave yet. I am not done enjoying the world and being part of it,” she told me.

 

The poet made a mistake. She was reading A Summer Day with its unforgettable closing line: What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Instead of reading precious, she said perfect.  Later in the question and answer time, a woman asked the poet if she finds her poems changing over time and that she had noticed Oliver had a changed a word in the last sentence of A Summer Day. “I did?! What?” the poet exclaimed. She had no idea she had replaced precious with perfect. “Well, isn’t that interesting?” she laughed.

 

Some are blessed enough to know life is precious. A moment is given where our wings take on ice, we go into a stall, and hover an instant before a freefall into the secret.

 

But what does it mean to know your life is also perfect? Coming from God and returning to God, how could it not be perfect? Ours is a God who told Moses his name was being itself, Yahweh.

 

Our life – frayed, fretful, and failed – is perfect. It is we, who give it a dwelling place and personality for a time, who are too distracted to see its splendor and too imperfect to perceive its perfection.

 

We – querulous and argumentative, standing center stage in our little dramas – miss that great and perfect bird sweeping silently through the blue, light streaked, curtain of mystery.

 

…Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself–
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
.   .   .   .   .
…this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
from Heron Rises from the Dark Summer Pond, Mary Oliver
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What Is A Prayer?

CBR002349I 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…
Mary Oliver (A Summer Day)

I have been at it for a lot of years now, and I still do not know exactly what a prayer is. It seems to have always been part of my life like the color of my eyes. As a preschooler I learned to fold my hands and bow my head. I prayed for my family, our dog, and my neighbor, Mrs.Wendel, who made good cookies. I had a set list I covered: Santa Claus, the Snowman, and Betty Crocker, whose picture was on the box which my mom’s iron came in.

CBR001191We always prayed before meals, usually led by my father. Every night he kneeled beside his bed to pray. I came upon him at prayer like that many times. He died in 2000. When I go back to Iowa to visit my mother, I like to sit in a corner by a bookcase, where dad read the Bible every day. His magnifying glass, pens, and letter opener are still there.

My father’s prayer was quiet and hidden, yet woven into the fabric of his life like his breath. I saw the fruit in his kindness and caring acts for others, in the vitality of his mind and interest in the world around him, and in his outrage at injustice. As he grew older, he would often say, “I am just so thankful.”

What exactly is a prayer? I fumble for the words. Traditional words about prayer feel like pebbles in my mouth, tasteless, hard and difficult to swallow. As much as I gnaw at them I find no nourishment.

“What language may we borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?” wrote the anonymous author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. Whatever language we use, it will always be “borrowed.” It will be loaned from some, other, lesser reality in an awkward, ill-fitting attempt to clothe The Reality beyond all language and human thought. Mere words fail to express the experience of our hearts in response to God’s love, gifts, and challenges in our lives.thinking businessman

Now I will foolishly do something I have just told you is impossible: tell you what I think a prayer is. For me prayer is fundamentally an attempt to communicate.  This desire to communicate is initiated in us by God and it is a way in which we participate in the likeness of God.

Take a look at that word, communicate. Its root carries the meaning of coming together, communing, communion. What is implied is that at least two separate parties are desirous of joining in some way, of reaching an understanding, of connecting with a commonly held perspective, need, desire, or purpose.

We could say prayer is the eternal conversation and exchange of love as experienced in the context of our lives in which all parties are affected and changed in some way. For me the life, what engages me, is not the abstract concepts of prayer, but in the lived experience of communication. By the way, this is why I believe God is on Facebook and is an old hand at Twitter.

Prayer rides on the wings of our hearts’ desires, anguish, hunger and joy – that bolt of white fire that connects heaven to earth and unites mortal with divine. I can’t say exactly what a prayer is. But I can sure tell when people have been doing it.

RFA073Who taught you to pray? Who are you teaching? What exactly is a prayer to you?

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