No one has yet made a list of the places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. ~ Mary Oliver 9/10/35-1/17/19
When poet Mary Oliver took leave of the earth, I felt the world shift a little. It was the kind of shift a person might feel when “the tiniest nail in the house of the universe” is no longer there. Well, no longer there, at least as it once was. Not in its usual place; but, serving its purpose still.
Mary Oliver thought deeply about life – the totality of it and the unique, miraculous place of every being in it. More than thinking, however, she lived life deeply and courageously – fearlessly wrapping her arms around fleeting time and embracing all that is “wild and precious” in our temporal, earthly being.
In discovering ways to love life again – through words and walking and writing – Mary Oliver showed us that even the “tiniest nail in the house of the universe” could be useful – powerful, in fact. She knew that the “tiniest nail” may not be just a way of holding the house together, but of building bridges to the new places we will go “where the extraordinary may [indeed] happen.” No one has yet made a list of the places where the extraordinary may happen because there should be every expectation that the extraordinary not only can happen, but is, in fact, always happening, in real time, wherever we are. To experience the extraordinary, we only need to stay curious. To open ourselves to astonishment. To pay close attention. Tell someone about it. And, to listen to someone tell us about it.
For many years at Caroline Center, Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” was a master key to the door in the house of the universe. It was the key we gave to every Caroline Center trainee on her very first day here - a key that we hoped would open for her a warm and welcoming place filled with potential. “The Journey” said to our trainees and all who gathered to hear the poem, here’s how you can step outside of yourself and then back into yourself so that you can start your life anew. Here’s what you must give yourself permission to leave behind and allow yourself the confidence to embrace, so that you can envision the future and know how it feels to live your life deeply and courageously. “The Journey” spoke to our truest hearts, reminding us that the act of living is equal parts what we should discard, what we must reclaim, and what we can create anew. So, several times a year, with each incoming class, we heard “The Journey” read to us and we traveled together. Maybe not to the same places, but with each other. Side by side. Through darkness into light. Until we could see ourselves as much more and different from the burdens we carried.
It’s 2019. An exciting new year; and, a new beginning for Caroline Center. As we journey on a road that is both familiar and different, our question remains the same – “How will we get where we are going together?”
Elizabeth Alexander, who composed the poem for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, has this extraordinary line of verse in her “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe:”
Poetry (here I hear myself the loudest)
Is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
I love what Elizabeth Alexander says about the poem and these lines in particular ~
I think that the truth of [the] poem is not about true things or things that happened, but rather in the question are we not of interest to each other? Which to me isn’t about, I like her shoes or, oh, he has a fascinating job. It’s much deeper than that. Are we human beings who are in community, do we call to each other? Do we heed each other? Do we want to know each other? To reach across what can be a huge void between human beings.
How do we get there together? How do we create community? How do we speak and listen to one another? Do we really want to know each other?
The answers can be in our words. In how we consciously choose to reach across the void. In our deliberate willingness to open the door, get out, and go on a journey to places less familiar. The answers will be in the telling and hearing – in the ways that our words bring wisdom and light.
Sometimes, all we have to offer one another are our words and our stories. So, let them be, as Elizabeth Alexander reminds us, “very, very, very precise – not prissy, but precise.” Let them hold, as Mary Oliver suggested, all the potential that is in our “one wild and precious life.” And, as we speak them, let our words and stories be healing. Let them be true. Let them be life-saving. And, may they always be deeply heard.
Image: "Doors of the World" by Andre Vicente Goncalves
Title: The title of this post is from Mary Oliver's Upstream: Selected Essays, Penguin Press, New York, 2016