Idle and blessed, wild and precious

...I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention 
how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done? 
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

--from Mary Oliver's 1990 poem, "The Summer Day"

I'm not sure how I got this far in life without becoming obsessed with Mary Oliver's poetry, but rest assured I'm currently making up for lost time.

Lost and found

Earlier this month I was in my hometown, finally organizing the stuff remaining in my old bedroom, and found a clipping of a poem I loved but had totally forgotten about. It's fun and somewhat surprising to realize that my teenage self had pretty decent taste in some things (the clothing I found is another story altogether.)

The Teacher

by Billy Collins

There is that part of us that believes
We will never die – otherwise,
How could we watch so much television,

and there is the part that believes
when we die, all life will come to an end.
This is the part that storms within us
dragging its robes across the marble floor.

But what I like to believe
is that the minute I die,
the world will change into a map of the world

which I will roll up into a tube
and carry with me wherever I am going.

It could be an antique map with pictures
of sea serpents in the corners
or a huge Mercator projection,
but when I finally get where I am going
(and I have a feeling it will take days),

I will spread out the map on something flat,
and there I will study the patterns
of shorelines and boundaries,
maybe reminisce about a country I once visited
or a strait where a navel battle once took place.

I also like to believe
that there will be other beings there
who will gather around this picture of earth
so I can explain to them what it was like –

how the cold mountains rose above valleys,
how this was called geography,
how the people from this pale blue area
crossed into the light green area to the south
and killed whoever they found there
and how this was known as history

and as they listen, mild-eyed and silent,
others will arrive to join the circle
like ripples moving toward the center instead of away.

Published in the November 2003 issue of Poetry Magazine

"Nothing Ever Happened, so don't worry"

I just came across this letter Jack Kerouac wrote to his first wife, Edith, in January 1957 (a few months before the release of On the Road.) Jack and Edith were married from 1944 to 1946.

I particularly like the final paragraph (as do a lot of people, judging by the fact that that's the only part of the letter that seems to be published anywhere, mostly in spiritual quotation books and websites) but I prefer to read things in context, so I tracked down the whole thing here. I'm glad I did, because now I have a new favorite way to sign off on letters.

Your eternal old lady,


Monday, Jan 28, 1957

Dear Edie,

That was a beautiful letter you wrote me. I read some of it to Lucien later on.

You know, before Joan died, when I saw her in 1950, she said you were the greatest person (I think she said nicest) she had ever known.

As for Willy B., he's queening around now but as ever he never bothers me with that. Instead we take long walks in the evening with hands clasped behind our backs, conversing politely. He is a great gentleman and as you may know, has become a great writer, in fact all the bigwigs are afraid of him (W.H. Auden, etc.) Yes, he knows we're coming in February, late.

Allen never loses track of me even when I try to hide. He does me many favors publicizing my name. Well, we're old friends anyway. But I can't keep up the hectic “fame” life he wants and so I won't stay with them long in Tangiers. I'm going to get me a quiet hut by the sea on the Spanish coast, then join them in Paris in the Spring.

Escaping reality to go into simplicity is just what I do, except I regard reality as being simplicity. That is, God is Alone. Don't worry, I eat plenty, I have my cook kit in my pack and make delicious food wherever I go, when I have to. In NY naturally everybody invites me to big dinners in homes. But like in Spain and Europe, I'll make my pancakes and syrup with black coffee for breakfast, boil my big pot of Boston baked beans with salt port and molasses, make salads, eat French bread, cheese and dates for dessert. Etc.

I'll write you and you keep writing and if you suddenly get the impulse to see Europe I'll be here to show you around.

I have never left you either, and had many dreams of you, wild dreams where we're wandering in dark alleys of Mexico looking for a place to bang, etc.

I want to end my life as an old man in a shack in the woods, and I'm leading up to that soon as I dig the whole world including the orient. I'm invited to a Buddhist Monastery in Japan and will go within 5 years. Also other things. Make movies too, later. I'll have more money than I need. Or maybe only what I need. I'm glad to send my mother her reward, think eventually I'll take her out to California and get her a little rose covered cottage, and get me a shack for half the time, in the wild hills beyond Mount Tamalpais.

Hearing your voice at night over the phone, in a hotel where I'd gone to hide out to work, was like a strange and beautiful dream. You sounded warmer and more mature. You will always be a great woman. I have a lot of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don't worry. It's all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don't know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky ways of cloudy innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect. We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere, or one universal self. Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes through everything, is one thing. It's a dream already ended. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the one vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born.

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.

Your eternal old man,


The poem the Adorable One slipped into your pocket

This marks my second annual posting of poetry around Valentine's Day.

You might notice that the flowery, "read at your wedding" types of poems are never my favorites. This was actually a problem recently, when I was looking for material to be read my own nuptials-- all the literary things I truly like are melancholy!  (We ended up not having any readings at all.)

But, I can only hope that the stripped-down expressions I favor resonate with those who are weary of all the lovey-dovey stuff that abounds at this time of year.

Tonight I'm sharing a longtime favorite from Mark Strand, first published in the October 20, 1997 issue of the New Yorker. Maybe it'll encourage one of you dear readers to make a much-needed move (romantically, socially, career-wise, whatever) well before "the moment it serves no purpose at all."

by Mark Strand

As for the poem the Adorable One slipped into your pocket,
Which began, "I think continually about us, the superhuman, how
We fly around saying, 'Hi. I'm So-and-So, and who are you?'"
It has been years since you bothered to read it. But now
In this lavender light under the shade of the pines the time
Seems right. The dust of a passion, the dark crumble of images
Down the page are all that remain. And she was beautiful,
And the poem, you thought at the time, was equally so.
The lavender turns to ash. The clouds disappear. Where
Is she now? And where is that boy who stood for hours
Outside her house, learning too late that something is always
About to happen just at the moment it serves no purpose at all?