Tag Archives: Unplugging

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

Hook, Line & Thinker

Navigating Through an Overload of Advice

“I’m all lost in the supermarket I can no longer shop happily I came in here for that special offer A guaranteed personality”- The Clash

Some days it seems the floodgates have opened and we are all but drowning in information tossed at us. We do our best to swim, but then it can seem like we are fish swimming through a gauntlet of hooks.

Even something that is supposed to bring you peace, like meditation, can ironically cause anxiety if it becomes an intellectual exercise. There are so many ways to meditate that vary from teacher to teacher.  Do I keep my palms up or down? Do I keep my eyes open or shut? Am I focused on my breath, the mantra, my heart or my “third eye”? Is walking in the woods or doing the dishes my form of meditation, or do I need to sit for ten minutes or three hours in order to calm my being?

The thing to remember when going through the mega-store of advice with the 5 ways to get this and the 10 ways successful people to that, is that you have an internal guidance system that allows you to choose what is right for you. This internal guidance system operates below the mind’s chatter.  Some call it intuition, some call it discernment. Whatever you call it, there is a calm part of you that offers to help you make the right choice moment to moment.

As someone who loves to investigate and splash around in various practices, I see the value in many things simultaneously. There is a comedic group called The Firesign Theatre that used to sing:

“How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?”

The book Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, talks about a yogi who is said to have actually appeared in two places at once.

While that seems impossible, the truth is we just do not know what is possible because we become prisoners to our intellect, and our fear of missing out on what the other kids are doing, (the old FOMO). Perhaps that yogi just realized he was not confined to anywhere at all, so he could simulcast himself like a wandering hologram, or, to borrow from Firesign Theatre again, “a holy-gram.”

So, what am I getting at? I believe we each have something grounding that constantly streams through us. This stream is at once unique as a snowflake and universal as water.

We have an innate sense of peace when we encounter something that rings true for us. We feel the resonance. For example, you might not be a Buddhist but hearing the Dalai Lama laugh might make you feel, “Hey, this guy is alright!” That doesn’t mean your inspiration is telling you to become a monk, but you may agree with him that kindness is key to happiness. You file that notion away and it becomes a part of you.

When we begin to trust the natural flow within us we can navigate through the world without being paralyzed by advice.  Accessing our inner wisdom starts with making peace with all of ourselves. For example, the ego is a part our wholeness in the same way that a  two-year-old having a tantrum can be a beloved part of a family. You can cherish the two-year-old and still not let him drive the car to work.

Calming the part of us that is scared is key. We each can become susceptible to doubt and flop around like a fish out of water wondering if we are ‘doing it right’ (Whatever ‘it’ happens to be in this moment). We may have a good friend that has a practice that gives them great peace, insight, or allows them to travel around in the “astral plane”. We might want to jump on that magic carpet ride. However, if we rush in because we are afraid of not only missing out, but feel that if we don’t follow this particular path, we will remain forever incomplete, then we will not allow ourselves to become grounded enough for any practice to work. There are times when I am overwhelmed, consumed by doubt, and search around for an answer. Then, there are moments of clarity when I allow myself to be where I am and I feel open, flowing, connected to all there is.

I would like to suggest that there is always a part of us that is consciously observing. It watches us freak out, be “brilliant”, and everything in between.  It is open. There is no journey or time needed to access this part of ourselves.  When we are stumped, blocked, misguided by things like fear, depression, or rage, that part of us that is silently observing is still there. The slightest shift of perspective allows us to lovingly reassure our rampaging two-year-old that they are alright.

My uncle Jeff used to say that people and things will try and put their hooks in you but you can let them pass through. It is only in reacting that we get snagged.

By observing ourselves as we swim through a flood of advice, we can keep calm, remain in the flow and give ourselves good advice.