Tag Archives: Poetry

Mary Oliver’s Quiet Revolution

Poetry that brings the outdoors inside

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”- Mary Oliver

Year after year, decade after decade, Mary Oliver has revolved with the seasons. Quietly, she has turned out master poetry that brings us back outside, and back to ourselves.

Mary Oliver published her first book of poetry the year I was born, yet I only became aware of her writing this year. For me, discovering her poetry is like looking up and seeing trees that have silently grown all around me and finally getting to explore their grandeur. It is like falling in love with a song and discovering the artist who wrote it has scores of albums for you to dive into.

Her poetry, is a guide not only into forests, meadows and mountain streams but into the landscape of memory and being. Mary points out things that I most certainly would have missed.

Mary Oliver spent her childhood in seclusion. She talks of “living in a small town surrounded by woods and a winding creek- woods more pastoral than truly wild.” She would build herself little hut houses out of sticks and leaves with open doorways. These were her shelters where she could look out and truly take in the majesty around her. No one ever discovered, or at least disturbed, her houses. When the weather took them down, she recognized it as part of the process and moved on to build new ones. This was not a socialized communal fort building or territorial stake-claiming game. It allowed her to see the world that she was a part of not merely as resources, materials to be exploited or utilized but something wonderful.

“…The world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water…to the young, these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created.” – Mary Oliver

Her poetry encourages me to cast back to my childhood.  I first remembered making what I used to call my ‘bird house’ by surrounding myself with the bolster pillows from my bed.  I would drape a thinly woven blanket over the top of these pillows so that the light would stream in on me.  This isolation seemed to connect me to the “Green Mansions” I had read about in my dad’s two volume set of The Reader’s Encyclopedia. I felt tranquil and connected.  Without having the slightest understanding of meditation, in retrospect, I was tapping into the innate nature of silence that children find so enticing.

I remembered the tree in our backyard.  It was perfect for climbing.  I used to scale high up in the branches, surrounded by leaves, and look down at the ground. I looked up into the sky, into the hallowed hollowed space the branches made within the crown of the tree. I spent hours there. It became my office, my temple, the best place to think, the best place not to think. It was my perfect place to Be.  As an adult, I rarely allow myself to be. When did I start to take a book with me everywhere I went?  When did I start overfilling my day with the obsession of productivity? How often do I allow myself to just sit on the train and watch the sun spots dance on the river?

Since I discovered Mary Oliver, I spend part of my mornings with her poetry and essays.  She takes me Upstream* where I reconnect to the riches within my backyard and along the roadsides while en route with my wife, Julia, from state to state, gig to gig. Mary reminds me to notice, to look up from my phone.  She offers “the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.” It makes me want to go exploring. It is a point of view that helps me understand and more fully appreciate my friend Greg who moved to New Zealand to go on epic hikes along mountainous terrains for several days at a time. His drive to be there is the connection with the Earth that goes beyond words. Julia naturally shares this drive. She will stop the car to take in what can never be captured by a camera, although our phones are both filled with more pictures of scenery since spring has arrived. Our house is also adorned with special branches, leaves, stones and shells collected from glorious moments of noticing. It’s fair to say that my wife is quite conscious of what Mary so eloquently writes:

“The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child is singing still.” – Mary Oliver

Mary’s poetry is not composed of heady, ethereal dense concepts that have to be decoded or navigated with a mental machete.  She reminds me that each morning the dawn not only breaks but is there to break us open if we are awake for it. Even in traffic or on a subway, a portion of each morning’s spectacular unfolding performance can reach us where we are.

One morning in high school, a handful of my friends and I traversed out to the other side of a lake where I lived. We found a log that was long enough to accommodate all of us. We watched the sunrise in silence.  Spontaneously, we all rose to our feet in admiration, giving nature a standing ovation.

Mary Oliver’s writing prompts me to remember that I still have access. I can listen, absorb and be absorbed by nature’s radiance that offers us a temporal eternity.

Mary has not filled the streets with pamphlets and propaganda. No government has been overturned. There has been no violent uprising.
Still, person by person, Mary has brought us upstream poem by poem, where we can rejoice in silence at the turning of the tide.

*- Upstream- Selected Essays Mary Oliver Penguin Press New York 2016

Robin WIlliams- Goodnight Sweet Prince

In the midst of our push forward, whether it is for a campaign or work, or just keeping on top of our reality, the news of Robin Williams is a tragic opportunity to pause and reflect where we are.
 
In the midst of our push forward, whether it is for a campaign or work, or just keeping on top of our reality, the news of Robin Williams is a tragic opportunity to pause and reflect where we are.
 
For me, Robin was a mentor, a hero, a victory of the absurd over the downcast dour face of normalcy. The pressure to conform to a media-projected image of ‘correct behavior’ is enough to crush the free will and spirit of humanity.  It is the bravado of the comedians, the poets as well as the calmness of the wise that allow any of us to be sane. 
 
Robin attacked not only his depression but the collective despair of humanity with a lightsaber of wit that few of us could keep up with or comprehend.  He fought against the windmills and won for a long time; longer, I imagine he thought he was capable of.  Public criticism and worse, indifference acted as the Knight of the Mirrors to his valor and need to be in the saddle.  It is our image of ourselves that can unhinge us from our true being.
 

This is perhaps the most insightful thing I have read by a friend of Robin’s, Peter Coyote:

Robin William’s Last Gift

“Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen minute set that pulverized the audience.

When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this little letter is meant in that spirit.

Normally when you are gifted with a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep, you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your body up to that level.”

Robin’s gift could be likened to fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance, nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained. Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could only hang on for dear life.

In the final analysis, what failed Robin was his greatest gift—his imagination. Clutching the horse he could no longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained, it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is nothing we can do.

Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and memory a dis-service if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which, if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us to pay attention if he could.”

– Peter Coyote

Photo: Robin William’s Last Gift
Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen minute set that pulverized the audience.
     When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this little letter is meant in that spirit.
     Normally when you are gifted with a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep, you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your body up to that level.”
    Robin’s gift could be likened to fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance, nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained. Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could only hang on for dear life.
     In the final analysis, what failed Robin was his greatest gift---his imagination.  Clutching the horse he could no longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained, it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is nothing we can do.
     Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and memory a dis-service if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which, if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us to pay attention if he could.

_________________

 
The beauty and strength of our vulnerability allows us to recognize where we overlap, blend, bleed into one another.  We are all in need and have a strength that can support those around us while appreciating what is being offered to us. I appreciate what Peter has offered to us here. We can appreciate what Robin offered. All those victories of his, on film, live on stage and in person. They are real and live on. So often we judge or just look at the end but it is the living that reflects what is beyond what we can understand.
 
Let Shakespeare through Horatio speak for me: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
 
Love you, Ira

Bon Apetit Jered Nelson! and “Put down your phone, pick up a poem!”

Last week I wrote about my friend Jered, who is expanding his pottery business and training and hiring local potters.
He didn’t make his kickstarter goal but because he and his family put it out into the universe that they needed a specific amount of money and were open to receiving it, it came through in a different form.  Happily, this week a couple of investors loaned them exactly what they needed and Bon Apetit magazine is going to do something about Jered!
“Funny how that happens,” his wife Sarah Kobrinsky said.
This is an amazing example of how when we come to a place of knowing what we want to manifest and decide it is going to happen and are not shaken by appearances, but remain fully engaged, we can recognize our good when it comes to us and take it up with discernment and gratitude.  Julia often reminds me to ask for the best thing to happen for everyone involved.
Sarah also has a project as the Poet Laureate of Emeryville which is Poems on the Emery Go-Round, (the free shuttle bus service in Emeryville.)  Their tagline is:
“Put down your phone, pick up a poem!”
The city just approved her Call for Submissions and here is the link:

https://poetlaureateofeville.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/call-for-submissions_emery-go-round.pdf

If you are a poet or know a poet in the SF Bay Area, please pass this on!