Monday, July 6, 2015

The Poems of Mary Oliver

                                                   [picture by me]

The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice--

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do--

determined to save

the only life you could save.

--Mary Oliver

One of my commenters recommend I go read a Mary Oliver poem.

Now Mary Oliver is an interesting one. I have to admit parts of her poems I like and other parts I don't like. In this interview, she admits coming from a very dysfunctional family. This does not surprise me as her poems resonate with escape themes. Escape into nature!

Many of us ACONs did exactly that. I never have written about my time in the woods as a child but when I was young from the ages of 7-13 we lived very near what I estimate to be around a 50 acre park, part of it was grassland, a pavilion and a ball field, but the rest was all closely dense woods. I would spend hours exploring these woods among the trees, collecting rocks and leaves. Back in the day, children often were not as closely supervised as they are today but I remember my time in the woods being one of healing. I still have this connection with nature today.

 In this way Mary Oliver may be a very alike soul in her desire to escape into nature. One sees this common theme of animals, the power of nature and more. In this poem one imagines the wild night, the escape with just the light of the stars above to guide a person.

The part of the poem where people shout "Mend my Life" sounds like the experience that those with engulfing narcissists have. I often forget that unlike the always "winning" and ignoring narcissists I dealt with,  some deal with the parasitic kind that latch onto their ankles and never let go until they are shaken off. We should help people as much as we can, but some will tell people to "mend their lives". Often they are the engulfing narcissists who latch onto their children to solve all their problems or to even keep them company for their entire lives. People like this will stand in the way of their children growing and flying on their own.

Spiritually I don't agree with many concepts in Mary Oliver poems. While seeking to take care of yourself to a point is important, I remember warnings in scripture as well.

Luke 17: 33 Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
The poem is very self-determinist. While I believe people should make their own way the best way they can that is to be done with some balance. I believe every ACON who breaks away, is definitely showing a strength in leaving the clawing hands of those who want to hang on to either say "Mend my Life" or "Be my slave".

In my pre-Christian days, I was in the UU church and had a Unitarian Universalist pastor who loved Mary Oliver poems and read them at every service. Some of the poems resonated with me them, the idea of escape holding firm. The seeking after nature. One thing about Mary Oliver is she is very popular in UU circles. She has spoken at UU meetings. Her foundation seems to be a Walden-like Transcendentalism where one finds one self in nature and walks alone. According to the ethos of Transcendentalism which Unitarian Universalism was essentially founded on.  One is to be self-reliant. One is to be self determined.  These themes run in American culture.

This is one aspect of American culture that is really strong, the lone hero or heroine making their way in the world and never failing or faltering, making good with a stand alone ethos. A man and woman forming their own island of resiliency and success just like Transcendentalist Thoreau lived alone at Walden Woods. It is an American doctrine rarely questioned. It has only grown stronger in our society the religious underpinnings aside. And it is not just something more liberal UUs subscribe too but it is actually a strong theme even in the mainstream and conservative evangelical church world via the Republican party--with the praise of individual bootstraps for all.

It is a worldview that I don't really subscribe to. Years of disability tends to have a person understand they do need other people from time to time.  When I was young, I remember the appeal it had to me but this is one reason why libertarianism didn't work as a political home for me, This self determinism that is supposed to overcome all problems. I don't mind independence but I think every-man or woman as his or her own island isn't working. This is a very socially disconnected society and it's rooted in some of these themes. The myth kind of failed for me when it came to reality.

It does not surprise me a commenter outraged with impoverished Tiffany and me, told me to read a Mary Oliver poem.  Her poems were very popular in my very affluent UU churches where I didn't fit the demographic especially among middle aged women.  The themes of nature, and that flavor of spirituality to be found within nature, as well as the assumed confidence for those who the world has truly been an oyster comingled together.

The Tiffany Sedaris post debates told me something about life in America. The haves will call the have-nots losers, immature, burdens, mooches. The have-nots will defend their position and ask for some compassion, but will have never-ending shame foisted on them for not having "succeeded". Those who have not attained a certain status will be told to "grow up!" Some have trounced me for assuming things but I admitted in the article I was taking the words of the essay at face value.  The self-deterministic theme in American culture is one that is often used as a hammer sadly enough.
Let's look at another Mary Oliver poem. This one I spiritually differ from as well....

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.

I believe younger me read this poem and loved it, because of the nature sentiments--one can almost visualize time passing and flying over the woods into the sky and the idea of feeling called to greater things but the me of today worries at the sentiment "You do not have to be good"? That is a rather strange sentiment. I don't like someone telling people they do not have to be good. Of course I believe one cannot earn their way to heaven, true Christian salvation does not mean working your way to heaven but via grace. The statement "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." seems to be a call for doing whatever you want without parameters, often bad advice in this world.  The world feels like home to Mary Oliver, but spiritually I know it doesn't to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment