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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Oliver’

Harvard yard November light trees fall blue sky

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.

[…]

Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

—from “Heavy,” Mary Oliver

I read this poem in Thirst a few years ago, but heard it read aloud this week at Morning Prayers. I listened to the words and thought, not for the first time lately, that gratitude—along with courage and books and yes, grief—can be a heavy burden to bear.

For me and for many of the folks I love, this has been a year of coming close to grief: closer and closer until we are right in the middle of it. We have navigated trauma and transition; we have wept, sometimes privately, sometimes together. We have been sustained—never doubt it—by friendship and sunshine, hot drinks and fresh flowers and occasional blinding joy.

geraniums window red flowers kitchen

But I cannot come up to Thanksgiving without first pausing to acknowledge: there has been so much, this year, to carry.

Even the good gifts this year have sometimes felt prickly, as my friend Micha put it years ago. My new job at Berklee, where I am glad to be, came at the expense of leaving Harvard, which I love. My husband has seen the end of one nonprofit he runs and the beginning of another: a professional success, but a stressful one. I have multiple friends who have navigated moves, loss, job changes, seeing their lives upended and rearranged. Sometimes it comes by choice; often it is a product of circumstances. Always, it requires summoning courage.

We carry our griefs, like other burdens, as best we can; we shift and strain and sometimes we ask for help. And alongside the heartache is the constant reminder: there is so much, in this world, that inspires thanks.

I am grateful for—among other things—the vivid sunrises out my kitchen window, and the cheery red geraniums that turn toward the light as I do. I’m grateful for pleasant workdays at Berklee, and the snatched hours I still spend in Harvard Square. I am grateful, in both places, to have found home: the one I am working to build, the other I am determined not to lose.

I’m grateful for countless long runs on the trail, for Monday night boot camps with Erin and company, for yoga in a green-walled studio, for the chance to step into my own strength. I’m grateful for good books and thought-provoking articles, and the connections I’ve made via both, online and off.

Most of all, I am grateful for the stalwart loved ones who have supported me through another year of challenge and change. Some of them are bound to me by blood or vows, but all of them are family.

If you are celebrating: I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving. If you are carrying grief: I see you. And if, like me, you are doing both, I wish you joy and strength for the road ahead.

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sunflowers tory row cambridge blue sky

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sunflowers rockport tall

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

sunflowers d2 cambridge

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

sunflowers blue vase table

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

—Mary Oliver

I came across this poem in Oliver’s gorgeous collection Blue Iris, which I read, savored and lingered over for weeks this spring. It has stayed with me through a long, hot, crowded summer, especially as the sunflowers began to bloom here in Boston and Cambridge. Some of its lines resonated right away; others have come back to me during difficult or lonely days.

sunflowers darwins cambridge

I love sunflowers: their bright faces and sturdy stalks, their cheery yellow petals, the way they peek over fences and surprise me. There are vases of them – on both my desk at work and my kitchen table – as I type this.

In some ways, I also am a sunflower: I am shy, but want to be friends. I always do my best to seek out the light, though I recognize, increasingly, that “the long work of turning [our] lives into a celebration is not easy.”

perennial sunflowers rockport

I am grateful, this week and in this whole season, for these bright faces peeking out around so many corners. Like all the flowers I love, they offer beauty and hope in a world where we badly need both.

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belong to me book tulips mug

April has brought the craziest weather so far: six inches of snow, torrential rain, mild sunshine. Here’s what I have been reading:

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright
Blues musician Cory Beth Ainsworth has always known her mama spent a year as a backup singer for Elvis – but she’s never known the details. After her mother dies, Cory stumbles upon a vintage Stutz Blackhawk in her stepfather’s shed: a car that belonged to the King himself. Fueled by a need to know more about her own history, Cory takes to the road, driving the Blackhawk from South Carolina to Memphis. A sweet road-trip story, though Cory is seriously flaky. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
During a serious reading slump, I picked up this book and fell head over heels (again) into this luminous, funny, utterly genuine story about a few families whose lives become intertwined. I adore Cornelia, who also narrates Love Walked In, and I love how her world gets bigger and richer in this book. I am amazed at de los Santos’ deep compassion for her characters, even prickly Piper (Cornelia’s neighbor).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
I need a Mary Oliver fix every once in a while (especially during National Poetry Month). This collection of poems and prose poems is luminous and lovely. Some favorites: “Fox,” “It is midnight, or almost,” and the last poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

Audacity Jones to the Rescue, Kirby Larson
Audacity Jones is whisked away from Miss Maisie’s Home for Wayward Girls as part of a top-secret mission involving President Taft – but neither the mission nor its consequences are what she expects. A fun, fast-paced middle-grade novel with a spunky, clever heroine. (I love her name!)

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, Natasha Solomons
After World War II, the Fox-Talbot estate in Dorset (Hartgrove Hall) is falling apart, and the family’s three sons work to try and save it. Harry, the youngest, is a gifted composer and avid folk-song collector, but he’s also in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Solomons’ writing is gorgeous – she evokes both music and the English countryside so well – though the love triangle didn’t feel quite believable to me. (I loved her earlier novel The House at Tyneford.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
The four Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – live with their father in a comfortable, shabby brownstone in 1940s New York City. They decide to pool their allowances so they can have adventures on Saturdays, and do they ever! I love this book – the writing is simple and lovely and the characters are so much fun. First in a series.

Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
After Samantha Young loses her father and her home, she finds herself fleeing town in the company of a runaway slave, Annamae. The two girls disguise themselves as boys and strike out for the Oregon Trail, hoping to outrun their problems and chase their dreams to California. A smart, vivid YA novel with two brave heroines and some really fun supporting characters (human and animal). Reminded me a bit of Walk on Earth a Stranger.

A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability “Kitty” Weeks has ambitions of being a journalist, but she’s stuck writing for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. But when a man is murdered at a society picnic on her beat, Kitty finds herself drawn into a twisty conspiracy. This one had a slow start but picked up later on. Kitty is a likable heroine and the setting (1915 NYC) will appeal to lovers of historical mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four Englishwomen, unacquainted and all variously miserable for their own reasons, rent a charming Italian villa for the month of April. A winsome comedy of manners with plenty of wit and many amusing misunderstandings. (Also: gorgeous descriptions.) Utterly delightful. Recommended by my pen pal Jaclyn.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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poetry books

No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever.

On the contrary, poets have, in freedom and in prison, in health and in misery, with listeners and without listeners, spent their lives examining and glorifying life, meditation, thoughtfulness, devoutness, and human love. They have done this wildly, serenely, rhetorically, lyrically, without hope of answer or reward. They have done this grudgingly, willingly, patiently, and in the steams of impatience.

They have done it for all and any of the gods of life, and the record of their so doing belongs to each one of us.

Including you.

—Mary Oliver, Rules for the Dance

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tulips table book bowl curry lunch

It is bleak (snowy) midwinter over here – the season for strong cups of tea and lots of books. Here’s what I’ve been reading so far this month:

The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
This poetry collection was a Secret Santa gift from a colleague. Duffy’s language is stunning and often highly political. Poems about bees are woven throughout. Lovely.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and found much to ponder in this exploration of metrical verse. She explains the technical terms but also drops in some beautiful words about why poetry matters.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life, Rebecca Barry
A wry, insightful, often hilarious memoir of marriage, home renovation, life with young children, and the slow realization that chasing your dreams is hard work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 7).

Mrs. Tim Carries On, D.E. Stevenson
World War II has broken out, and Mrs. Tim is bravely carrying on, despite having to manage her own troubles and everyone else’s. I loved this second installment of her adventures – witty, amusing, occasionally poignant.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve never seen anything like the snow we’re getting this winter – but at least I’m not stuck in a tiny, isolated prairie town, living on wheat. I love every page of the Ingalls family’s adventures, and the ending makes me cry.

Murder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver
Unhappy in her marriage, socialite Amory Ames agrees to go on a seaside holiday with an old friend – only to encounter a web of murders and lies. A sparkling, witty 1930s mystery with a wonderful narrator. A perfect snow day read.

Salt & Storm, Kendall Kulper
Avery Roe has always believed it’s her destiny to become the sea witch of Prince Island. But when a troubling dream shows her another fate, she must figure out how to stop it – if she can. Fierce, luminous and gorgeously written.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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poetry books

Recently, Alyssa tweeted about having “a personal canon of poems” – a few lines or poems she depends upon to be “permanently in [her] head.” Of course, I immediately started thinking about my own essential poems – the ones that rise up to comfort me after a loss, or get me through a tough day.

I stumbled on most of them in college or thereabouts, studying them in classes or discovering them via friends. I’ve quoted some of them here during Poetry Fridays, but today I wanted to gather them up, like a bouquet of words, and share them all with you.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words about “the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the face of deep and unrelenting darkness, the world is still heartbreakingly, powerfully lovely.

Since I came across it a few years ago, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” has been saving my life, line by line. I read it aloud from the pulpit in church this summer, and it was as good as any biblical exhortation.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.”

And a few lines down: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” (This is hard but so necessary.)

I am a lifelong bookworm, and I love Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” because it pushes me to get out of my head and into the beautiful world around me. The last lines are my favorites: “Come forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”

Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, on Sarah’s blog. I later read it aloud to a roomful of college freshmen one Sept. 11, as a way of paying tribute to those who died. The last lines still choke me up: “I am living. I remember you.”

I first encountered W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks” as the epigraph to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It speaks powerfully to the beauty and the difficulty of life, and the continued impetus to keep saying thank you.

Mark Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” discovered years ago in a rickety cabin at a camp tucked deep in the hills of northern New Mexico, always reminds me how magic lives in the everyday.

“My work is loving the world.” Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” reminds me of this again and again.

These poems have worked on me in different ways through the years. Sometimes they comfort me; sometimes they wake me up, through rhyme and rambling meter and startling images. But they all do what Seamus Heaney talks about in the last line of his wonderful poem “Postscript“: they “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

What poems have made it into your personal canon? I’d love to hear.

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