you have seen this a thousand times

Posted by on March 14, 2012

Esme & Lukas

Esme and Lukas reaching for a balloon at the Greek festival © 2010 Julia Mason Wickes

Summer Morning

by Mary Oliver

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,

it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

* * *

I have been reading a lot of Mary Oliver’s poetry lately from Red Bird, where this poem is from, and all of the poetry in this book is very good. I have been missing our books since we came here [to Washington DC], as they are all in storage, and most especially my tiny collection of poetry. But recently I broke down and bought a few new ones, like this one by Mary Oliver, that I’ve been wanting for a long time anyway.

Birds are chirping like crazy here as we approach the middle of March. Yesterday when I was up before dawn with Elsa our windows were wide open and she rightly pointed out the very riotous chirping that was happening at that hour. It should have been a beautiful thing to witness while most people are still asleep, but I was feeling grumpy and unmoved. It reminded me of this woman I used to work with at the first job I had out of school. Her name was Lia and she was grumpy and cynical (always the most entertaining kind of co-worker). Someone in the office said, pointing out the window: “Oh, look at the little bird in that bush,” and she said distractedly, without missing a beat, “Um, so what.” I have to admit, in spite of my persistent attraction to poets like Mary Oliver, and my stubborn, inborn capacity to turn everything into a grand metaphor for life, I am languishing more in the so what side of life right now.

Nevertheless, (always nevertheless–no one is ever going to take me seriously as a cynic) I have been reading and re-reading Anam Cara, by John O’Donohue, a book that Jeff so thoughtfully gave me before I left for Saint Louis. I was able to read it from cover to cover on that trip– beginning it on the plane ride there, and finishing it almost entirely on the plane ride back. That is something I rarely ever get to do in my life these days–read an entire book in such a short span of time–and that in itself was so nice, because there is a way you can experience a book that is much more meaningful when you immerse yourself in it, as opposed to, say, reading one paragraph and putting it down because you have to prevent something from spilling or breaking, and then forgetting that you were even reading a book at all, and then finding it several days later collecting dust behind the bed, where it fell when your child shoved it out of the way of whatever art project she shouldn’t have been using the bed for in the first place. Anyway, I highly recommend this wonderful book for lenten or any other kind of reading, because it completely blew me away. I’ll refrain from quoting it liberally here. Just please go read it.

So it is Great Lent, but I have nothing to say in the way of theological or church-inspired wisdom, John O’Donohue notwithstanding. What I might mention, however, is that on Sunday I had the briefest encounter with Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America at coffee hour. I’m not sure that we really had a conversation, properly speaking, but he spoke to me, and his words for some reason surprised me, even though they weren’t particularly surpising. They were simple, accompanied by the gaze of his large blue eyes, round and kind– words that might even, in a different context or from another person, or depending on how they were delivered, be considered patronizing or stale rhetoric. They were: “You have a good husband. Your children are beautiful. God has blessed your family.” And since then they keep looping in my head over and over again: good husband, beautiful children, God has blessed your family.

In a certain way, I feel that if this simple message were to be the sole content of my ascetic struggle this Lent– a year I will probably look back on wonderingly as the year that my good standing as a member of the Orthodox Church was at its most pathetically fragile and endangered–then I am doing pretty well. No doubt I should rightfully be cast out of the ancient Christian Church altogether, if anyone were really policing the situation of my lenten discipline this year. Thankfully for me, there are no such police, or, for that matter, a single soul paying the slightest attention. And while an impious church member could have some chance of being interesting in the context of 19th century Russia (depending on the degree to which they also exhibited a certain quality of tenderhearted madness) I know that here in 2012 it is really no more interesting than a reusable grocery bag that says something about recycling. Who cares, really? But I am grateful in any case to be under the radar, so that I can doggy paddle my way through Lent this year, far from the madding crowd, with the locus of my anticipation of Pascha residing in places as shoddy as Zulilly, which I peruse daily for girls’ size 6 Easter dresses…preferably with smocking.

I am making fun of myself, but seriously, I think that Jeff and I have been through a lot in the last, oh, nine years, and even at the best of times, family life with small children is challenging. Concessions can be made for going easy on ourselves and getting back to the basics of simple messages that may not be empirical facts but are really just things we confess to be true, like a creed, in order to keep going forward: that the life we have built together, the life that in some ways has merely happened to us without us even necessarily realizing what the heck (and here my good husband would insert a real curse word) was happening, is Good, and we can take that to the bank, and keep going forward. And, the Metropolitan added, I hear there are good things ahead for you.

Thank you, Vladyka. Maybe that is the only homily I needed to hear right now.

Poetry Wednesday

  1. A M B E R
    March 14, 2012

    I have many things to say. For one, I am skeptical that not a single soul is paying the slightest attention… although I suppose it may look that way. I sense the opposite: that all these very little things in our lives radiate out into the lives of those around us, and we hold each other within our hearts. I know I hold you, and your good husband, this way in myself, almost in prayer. And I would not be surprised if the Metropolitan does too, in his way.

    Secondly, where do all these nice Mary Oliver poems come from?? I bought a book of her poetry (New and Selected Poems) and feel like all the poems are about egrets and owls and cattails. Which are nice, but do not inspire me presently. Maybe I should look into Red Bird.

    Your comments about getting to read Anam Cara all the way through ring so true, down to the book fallen behind the bed because an art project relegated it there. I start books, good books, that I forget I am reading and come upon pages torn from the book in among the toys and stare at the words until it dawns on me that they are from my book, that I wanted to finish reading. I suppose this is why I mostly read the New Yorker now.

    And by the way, you are loved.

  2. Evelina
    March 15, 2012

    I believe, too, that what we do inspires other people, sometimes the persons we least expected. But we are not allowed – and for what reason I don't know, but it's for sure a good reason – to know how we influence the world. We never, with very few exceptions, come to know how a phrase or a gesture or a smile of ours changed somebody's life, or day. I don't know my own impact factor on the world.

    For some reason your post reminded me this passage (although I'm the last person to quote the Bible – that I by no means know by heart – and it's pretty remarkable that I came across it right now), Matthew 6, 17-19: But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, /so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you./ “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

  3. Julia
    March 15, 2012

    Thank you, Amber and Evelina.

    You are both right, of course, that even our behaviors affect the people around us in ways that we can't know. And speaking of Russia, was it Dostoevsky that said our smallest thoughts affect the universe? I hope I am remembering that right. My memory of things learned in the classrooms of St. Vlad's is getting rusty.

    Evelina, that gospel passage seems particularly beautiful and appropriate right now to me, so thanks for not only remembering it, but also for not keeping it to yourself.

  4. Beth
    March 16, 2012

    Thank you Julia. Mary Oliver is always a good person to pick up and read and this is a lovely poem.

    Anam Cara still sits on my oven shelf, with a copy of Mother Teresa, an Akathis to the Theotokos, and a book full of Gandhi's thoughts. All are treasures that I like to pick up in the morning and leaf through while stirring something. Usually in those few seconds allotted to me I discover something beautiful which could change my life if I allowed it to. Peace and blessings to you and your family, truly a gift.