Poem for a Quiet Weekend Day

Here is the amazing Mary Oliver with a poem I don’t think I ever really felt the truth of until today. It’s called Wild Geese and it goes like this:

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 the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers,

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear 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.

Considering Suicide

Anne Sexton lists many wounds in her poem about life’s pain that I quoted here yesterday: She speaks of ‘When they called you crybaby, or poor, or fatty, or crazy, and made you into an alien…” She seemed to feel such unease about her life, an unease that did not stop until the day she ended it. Having gone over her manuscript for her next collection The Awful Rowing Toward God with her friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, she went out to her garaged car, started the engine and sat there until the carbon monoxide essentially overcame her by-then unconscious body.

I only mean to say make it clear today that whatever pain living may have caused and however much I praised that poem, I would never do what she did – as long as I was well look out at the sky and know I was looking at it; to gaza at the faces of my caregivers and know them for the benevolent angels that such people are….

As long as I could know myself to still be balancing the brimming chalice that is life I would not consider suicide.

Here’s the poem that for me outlines the best way to look at death. Mary Oliver wrote it, and for 20 years a framed copy of it has hung on a wall in my house. Give it a read and tell me you don’t find it beautiful, and comforting, and inspirational:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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That Cottage of Darkness

Here below  is my favorite Mary Oliver poem, When Death Comes. Death came 36 hours ago for my Uncle Ed, and it came in just that way, the dagger of ice plunged between the shoulder blades.

I found his body and I got to be near it for a long time: through the EMT’s to the police, to the firefighters who had to take  the hinges off the bathroom door to get him out because he fell against it, wedging it shut. Ed was a big man.

When they did finally get him out, his arms were up – frozen up because he had died some 12 or 15 hours before – and it just struck me, that position. He looked like he was reaching out to embrace some dear long-awaited friend.

That’s the image I will take with me over the next days. It reminded me of this poem. Mary Oliver says Let me live my life like the bride married to amazement, Like the bridegroom taking the world in his arms.

Read on…

When Death Comes

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

When death comes like the measle-pox;

When death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

As a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

And I look upon time as no more than an idea,

And I consider eternity as another possibility,

And I think of each life as a flower, as common

As a field daisy, and as singular,

And each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

Tending, as all music does, toward silence,

And each body a lion of courage, and something

Precious to the earth.

When it’s over I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement,

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

 When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing

And frightened,  or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

And When I Die

Let’s talk more about death but let’s be cheerful about it: Do you know that poem by Mary Oliver When Death Comes? I loved it so much when I first saw it that I typed it up and  framed it: For the last 15 years it has hung in our downstairs bathroom, right at eye level  over the toilet so that most of  our male visitors know it by heart. One does anyway. You could go up to this young guy while he was skiing down a mountain in the middle of blizzard and say recite “When Death Comes” and bam! he’d do it for you. Perfectly. At lightning speed. (Ah Youth!)

I used to know it by heart. Now I can get through only the first few lines alas, the rest having gotten tumbled around with all the other things I know by heart like “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening” and “Jabberwocky” and the Preamble to the Constitution. Thanks to the minor deities Cut and Paste though, I can give it to you now:

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox;

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth

tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Pretty nice eh? And here’s another nice one, a song Laura Nyro wrote that Peter Paul & Mary covered in the 60s before Blood Sweat & Tears got their hands on it. A great tune with a great message, whoever’s doing the singing.

The Soft Animal of Your Body

On Sunday I posted about being on the brink of a major fall-apart, which caused a dozen great people to write in telling me to take some time for myself.

I couldn’t seem to take time away though and so therefore wrote something both Monday and yesterday. 

Things aren’t exactly better so here comes the part where I do stop, probably just for a day or two but even that will be huge to me. I’ll put up last week’s column tomorrow since I do that every week anyway to give myself at least one day off and then, well, I’ll just have to see where I am.

For now here is the amazing Mary Oliver with a poem I think I never really felt the truth of until today. It’s called Wild Geese and it goes like this:

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 the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers,

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear 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.

Clarity?

Saturday was the night of the big close moon and yesterday was the day of the wide blue sky. So maybe today, with snow falling again, it makes sense to see the weekend for what it was: a window of.. can I call it clarity after that crazy week I put in last week?

My friend Bobbie tells me I should stay away from all ‘screens’ one day a week and I actually did sort of do that this past weekend. I took a lot of pictures and read sections of the five or six books I’ve got going and fretted about the fact that we’re bombing another country. What I didn’t do is remain chained to my laptop, beaming my faint message like E.T. out to the vast and empty skies.

We had driven to our summer place partly to get out of the way of our new housemates as they settled in at our house – it seemed the  kind thing to do –  and it was beneficial to us as well. Certainly seeing that moon rise over a lake would clear anyone’s vision.

I’m working hard at figuring out why I pack so much ‘doing’ into my days and will report on that once I’m done. But at 11 last night when I turned out my light and saw the glow from that nice fat moon, a poem came into my mind. Mary Oliver’s “The Moths” which I copy here as if it were prose. Read it aloud in as fast and breathless a way possible and see if you don’t identify with the speaker at all. I know I do:

There’s a kind of white moth, I don’t know what kind, that glimmers, it does, in the daylight, in mid-May in the forest, just as the pink moccasin flowers are rising. If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more. And anyway I was so full of energy. I was always running around, looking at this and that. If I stopped, the pain was unbearable, If I stopped and thought, maybe the world can’t  be saved, The pain was unbearable. Finally, I had noticed enough. All around me in the forest the white moths floated. How long do they live, fluttering in and out of the shadows? ‘You aren’t much’, I said one day to my reflection in a green pond, and grinned. The wings of the moths catch the sunlight and burn so brightly, At night, sometimes, they slip between the pink lobes of the moccasin flowers and lie there until dawn, motionless in those dark halls of honey.

Rushing around or sitting motionless, we can all be glad of this: spring began last night and even the coldest, thickest ice is cashing in its chips s and starting to liquidate.