‘The family of things’

I’m skipping ahead to the end.

When I read books and watch movies, I never skip ahead to see what happens. I want to find out what happens when it happens. To understand the ending, I want to understand what comes before.


Photo: Txllxt TxllxT/Wikimedia Commons

But today, as I did my morning yoga stretches in the still-warm-enough backyard, I heard a faint, persistent honking. Looking up, I saw a near-perfect V formation of wild geese, flying south.

Instead of reminding me of what comes next — late fall, cold weather, winter — it made me think of the end of “Wild Geese,” the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this blog:

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.

My “Wild Geese” journey — my Mary Oliver Challenge — began at the beginning of the poem:

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.

It was a journey of liberation, begun at Passover — the season of freedom — with the startling notion that I “do not have to be good.” The radical idea that I am good, and that I can free myself from the voice that constantly tells me I am not good enough.

Some months later, still wrestling with those opening exhortations, I moved into the next line: Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. And then, years later, the line after that: Meanwhile the world goes on.

But now I’m skipping ahead to the end. That doesn’t mean I’ve completed my journey. I don’t expect I ever will. It’s likely to be a journey of direction more than of destination. Certainly not a journey of perfection. Even the wild geese I saw this morning didn’t maintain their near-perfect V formation for long. Two birds joined the V, but then others broke away, and soon it looked more like a check mark with some doodles in the margin.

What it does mean, this skipping ahead, is that a word from the ending jumped out at me this morning. A word I had not previously focused on: family.

I have previously paid attention to the inclusiveness, the universal and unconditional embrace: Whoever you are, no matter how lonely. And I’ve noticed the last verb, announcing. We don’t have to earn our place or even claim it; our place exists, we are in it, whether we know it or not and even though it may shift as we join the flock or break away.

But family. How did I miss that? Over and over announcing: You are heading home again. You belong.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

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 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.

‘Meanwhile the world goes on’

Commenting on a previous post, a friend remarked that I am using Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” as a “field guide.”

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Facebook photo

I love how that image captures the uncharted nature of this psychological and spiritual journey that I call the Mary Oliver Challenge. Although the opening and closing lines of “Wild Geese” point to where I want to go, the poem is not exactly a map. It’s a field guide, an aid in identifying features of the terrain through which I’m traveling.

This post — and Mary Oliver’s recent passing — bring me to a pivotal line, a sudden shift in the terrain, from inner to outer:

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 your 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 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.

When I first read the poem, that line bristled with cold indifference, even reproach: You think your despair is the center of the universe, but the universe couldn’t care less.

With time and rereading, my view changed. There is indifference, for sure. But it’s not cold or warm, hostile or embracing. Continue reading

In the land of the living

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The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.

And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.

That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.

But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.

Continue reading

The raveled sleeve of care

Two months ago, my mother drew her last, labored breath. I woke up this morning from a brutal, punishing dream with a brutal, punishing headache that hasn’t let up.

And yet, I am writing: scribbling in my journal, typing on my laptop. Writing poems, or bits of them — a dangerous pastime, given that I really don’t know how to write poetry. Everything I’ve written today is about loss, and grief, and fear — mostly fear of loss and grief.

I also fear failure. But in a fit of recklessness — or, let’s call it, freeing myself from perfectionism — I’ve decided to post this one.

Carnegie Tech detail

What We Wanted
An alma mater sweatshirt,
ash and rust, scarcely worn:
Dad made his own warmth.

After he died
I took a year to claim it, gingerly,
from the closet of leftovers
nobody wanted.

I wanted.

Once redeemed
it hugged me through four long, bitter
New England winters. Then:
an elbow hole. This spring the hole
blossomed and grew,
leaving more hole
than sleeve.

Sorely worn. But still I wear it.

Now Mom’s closets are empty.
We took what we wanted,
gave away the rest.

A painting, some muu muus.
A raveled sleeve.

Who will redeem this hole?

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Poems for my father

I haven’t written poetry since I was a child. (Birthday doggerel doesn’t count.) And I don’t often remember my dreams. But a few weeks ago, I dreamed about my father. A few days later, I found myself thinking about the dream in what seemed like a poetic form. So I wrote it.

A few days after that, a second poem emerged. Coming amid a drought of creative energy, they felt like gifts from some inner oasis.

Where Dad Lived

At first it was the same old dream:
classes unattended, assignments unbegun.
Then, leaving the school, a footloose ramble on unfamiliar streets,
through an alley, down a green terrace,
around to the front of a house I did not know.
But I knew it was where Dad lived.

Up the steps, through the front door—
and there he lay, on the living room floor. Not dead, not dying,
neither collapsed nor fallen,
yet something was wrong.
He talked about a hospital stay, and what he learned there
about his heart.

On the phone from Florida, he used to tell me about his A fib,
the pacemaker with two leads,
the new one with three.
Lying on the floor of this dream house that I did not recognize,
Dad delivered a report from the heart
about the pain that doesn’t show up on an EKG.

Mom almost didn’t marry him
because he didn’t like poetry.
“Rita!” her friend Barbara chided. “How much time
do you spend reading poetry?”
Mom elaborated:
“He didn’t talk about his feelings.”

Now, three years after she discovered him
lifeless on the bedroom floor,
maybe Dad is beginning to teach me
the poetry that was in his heart.

Sunset

At the end of the week
that was not shiva, I drove my mother
to the funeral home.
She had chosen a canister with a sunset design.
She cradled it in her lap on the way home.

I dropped her at the door
and carried my father
across the parking lot,
by the sparkling fountain,
through the lobby,
past his memorial photo that would be
gone the next day.

“Put it in the bedroom,” Mom said,
“in the corner where I found him.”
There, atop the dresser with his socks and boxers,
I set him down.

So much heavier
than I ever could have imagined.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.