‘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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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.

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The light in the middle of the tunnel

B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
—Psalm 36

I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.

But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.

House in Fog
“House in Fog,” Francisca Verdoner Kan, 2007

This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.

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Though my father and mother forsake me

Though my father and my mother forsake me,
The Lord will gather me in.

These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.

Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.

Rear Window 1958
My parents, Rita and Ray Smith, in 1958. May their memories be for a blessing.

In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.

That time came this summer.

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Season of return

Elul arrived on my doorstep this year with unwelcome baggage.

The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul is a time for reflection, for looking back on the past even as we look ahead to the coming new year. It’s the season of return. That’s the literal meaning of t’shuva, the seasonal theme usually translated as repentance.

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As summer turned toward fall, as the earth turned away from the sun, as leaves turned brown and lifeless, I felt a deep sense of loss. That was four weeks ago. Now Elul itself is ending, turning toward Rosh Hashana and the month of Tishrei. And the sadness remains.

In the past four years I have lost so much: my father, my good health, my energy, my self-image as a competent, hard-working person who can be relied upon to do what needs doing.

This new year of 5777 starts out as another year of health problems, another year of not knowing exactly what is wrong or what will fix it. Another year of fatigue and muscle pain, anxiety and disrupted sleep. Another year of unpredictable ups and downs. Another year—the beginning of Year Five—of diminished capacity and diminished self-image. Another year of not feeling like myself.

But my self is more than a bundle of health problems. This season of introspection calls me to step back from my frustration and notice what has changed, what has gotten better, not just what remains challenging and discouraging.

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A time to sit

This morning I paced around my house, as I often do, trying to settle into my daily prayers.

Most days I’m distracted by my to-do list and the feeling that I should be getting on with the day. This morning, tired and achy and a little sad and lonely, I could tell that it was a day to take it easy. A day to quiet my mind—the voice pestering me to get things done—and listen to the slow, sad, tired voices of my body and my spirit.

It’s been almost a year since I quit my job and launched this blog to chronicle my journey. Inwardly, it has been a year of exploration and discovery, even revelation. A year of deep valleys but also some peaks, or at least foothills.

Outwardly, though, it looks like a desert year. A year of unemployment (semi-voluntary though it is). A year of illness and long-term treatment that is only beginning to show results. A year of slow progress on this Mary Oliver Challenge, the challenge of learning to be myself and to love what I love.

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From my narrow place

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Photo: Douglas B. Barbour/USFWS

Min ha-metzar karati Yah
Anani va-merchav Yah.

From the narrow place, I called: “God!”
God answered me in the wide-open space.
—Psalm 118:5

Life is a journey, they say, and that has never seemed truer to me. This phase of my life bundles so many transitions: from child-rearing to my daughters’ independence; from the job I left last summer to whatever comes next professionally; from perfectionism to a kinder, gentler approach to myself and the rest of the world; from nagging unwellness through diagnosis to (I hope) restored health.

Notice how I conceive of this journey. Each transition has a “from” and a “to,” a beginning and an end. A destination, if not a goal.

But that’s not how life’s journeys really unfold. Often I don’t know where I’m going, let alone how long it will take or what will happen along the way. Sometimes I don’t know where I’ve been until I’ve left it behind.

And now I’m learning what can happen when prayers are answered and a narrow place—an unbearably tight spot—gives way to wide-open space: confusion. New fears. Bewilderment, which sounds an awful lot like “wilderness.”

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