Mary Oliver Reminds Us in These Harsh Times

I thought it might be time for something beautiful.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the trees
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver

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Duck Duck Goose

The summer birds are starting to arrive and they’ve got one thing on their mind; raising a family—and that means staking out territory. The canada geese and the mallards arrive first. In fact, in years past, Mister and Missus Goose have arrived when the pond was still frozen over. I have watched Mister Goose carefully stepping along the ice toward the nesting spot that he had no doubt been regaling about to the missus all winter. She, for her part, seemed to be saying with each deliberate irritated step, “Another fine idea you’ve got, Mr. Goose.”

This year the geese and the ducks decided to swap nesting sites. The geese are now nesting in the tiny island where the ducks nested last year, and the ducks are in the slightly bigger island. I tell them it probably won’t end well, no matter what. There’s a mink that’s savvy to both nesting spots.

But be that as it may, they’re going ahead with it. I know this because I see the husbands hanging out together in the pond—one duck, one goose floating near each other. The missus’s leave the nests only once a day for a small bit. They eat, they splash around, and then it’s back to incubating. The husbands continue their floating and their fraternity. It’s all very archetypal—the female nurtures, the male protects.

If another goose should show up, Mister Goose lets him know in no uncertain terms with a great deal of honking, that this pond is taken. However, he doesn’t do this with the smaller waterfowl. The mallard male seems to be a friend and there’s a pie-billed grebe in the pond that dives to eat fish. I often see it three or four feet from the feeding goose, diving with gusto, no doubt because the dabbling goose stirs up all sorts of things.

It’s an elaborate dance of harmony that seems to be how nature operates. And watching it, I wonder, what happened to our species?

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Unlimited Life

I saw the first wood duck of the spring this morning, as I was sipping my tea upstairs. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I needed the binoculars to confirm. Yes. A male wood duck in breeding plumage. Which, if you haven’t seen one, here is a picture.

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Beautiful, isn’t he?

Wood ducks are small and self-possessed. They swim in a quiet, deliberate, earnest way, keeping to the brushy part of the pond, because they are very shy. Even my figure at the glass windows forty yards away can spook them. It is always a thrill to see one.

Another special moment occurred last week when I spied an unfamiliar duck pair. Out came the binoculars. I stared to see how large they were, if they were diving or just dabbling and their coloring (this one seemed to have a black and white beak.) When I had enough information, I put the binoculars down and got out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I flipped through the pages, and it turned out that, without a doubt, I was seeing a pair of ring-necked ducks. Something I had never seen before.

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Here’s what I think. I think that a life of limits becomes an unlimited life when you slow down enough to see the richness around you.

The Night Sky

One night not long ago, I woke up at 2:00 am. I lay there listening to Richie and Buddy breathe. I listened to my brain rushing through all its thoughts of what to do, when to do it, and what has been done. Our window looks out on the water and for the first time in at least a week it was a clear night; I could see stars reflected in the still water and Orion dangling.

Stars. They settle me—settle my restless brain with their steadfastness. A long time ago, I read a poem by the nineteenth century English poet, Matthew Arnold. It had me at the first two lines:

              ” Weary of myself, and sick of asking

                What I am, and what I ought to be,”…

Ah, isolation, confusion. I could relate.

 

…”ye stars, ye waters,

On my heart your mighty charm renew;

Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,

Feel my soul becoming vast like you!

 

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,

Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,

In the rustling night-air came the answer:

“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.”

 

Live as they. Calm and belonging in the universal sense.

It was the answer I was looking for those many years ago and it was the answer that renewed itself to me that sleepless night.

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The Buddha’s Hand, a cocktail post

Recently on the radio, I listened to a program on the resurgence of the cocktail in American society. Perfect timing. Weary of the wrestling spectacle of politics and anticipating the green of spring, it brought to mind my own favorite cocktail to offset dreary—the Buddha’s Hand.

To make a Buddha’s hand you need to start with the citron called…the Buddha’s Hand (citrus medica var. sarcodactyllis). Related to the lemon, but much older, a Buddha’s Hand fruit contains no juice, only pulp. When its “fingers” are closed, it resembles the hand of Buddha in prayer. In China, its characters mean long life and happiness. But what you’re going to do with it is infuse it in good vodka for a month. So slice in up and stick it into the vodka. After a month, it’s ready. Smell it, and revel in the complex and generally uplifting aroma. Next get yourself a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur. Chartreuse is no ordinary liqueur. It is made by the monks of the Chartreuse Order in France–contemplative monks who spend their lives in silence (a documentary, “Into Great Silence” filmed in the monastery brings this home viscerally—there’s no speaking at all in the entire movie.) The green color of the liqueur comes exclusively from the one hundred and thirty plants and flowers that are infused to make the liqueur. Which one hundred and thirty, and in what proportion, is a nearly three hundred year old secret held and passed down to only two monks each generation.

To make this auspicious cocktail, take two ounces of your lovely Buddha’s Hand vodka and one-half ounce of Green Chartreuse. Add one-half ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice and shake with ice. Strain into your very favorite glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a thin lemon slice.

Now, admire the green-lemon color and know that no dyes were used to achieve it. Take a sip and savor the complex herb and citron infusions, redolent of the the natural world, of silence, and of meditation.

And if this doesn’t help you through the testing times, nothing will.

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A Time For Every Purpose

“I have rejected things with nothing so strong to replace them, and I am floundering.” So I wrote to my Zen teacher twenty-nine years ago. And, in the way of the cycles of life, twenty-nine years later, I find myself at this point again. (As an aside, this appears to be where we are at as a country, also.) We humans build up our internal infrastructures, relying on their existence for our sense of meaning, forgetting that infrastructures, too, get outdated and need to be refurbished. Life demands growth, and growth is change.

The realization that what worked for us in the past no longer does, is part of a natural cycle of growth. But just because it’s supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it feels great. As a matter of fact, it often feels so un-great that people have developed stock coping mechanisms. Some buy the little red sports car. Some throw off their partners for someone younger, some abuse alcohol and drugs—all to avoid feeling the pain of growth.

What did my Zen teacher write back to me? “If you are floundering, then just flounder” adhering to the Zen teachings of just experiencing your life without attachment.

No stones are left unturned in our lives (try as we might to keep them face down) because we are growing, thinking beings. A time of questioning beliefs, priorities, and values comes to everyone.

I forget sometimes, because it is so damn scary, that the best course of action is to sit right in the middle of it, just experiencing (and not reacting to) those feelings. The floundering, like the curve in the road, brings us to the next place in our lives.

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Dark Matter

“Oh, I LOVE winter,” younger me used to say. “It’s so much fun, you can cross country ski, and snowshoe and make snowmen and it’s so cozy.”

I suppose it was last winter that did me in. So now, winter has become my time for escape. And my escape in winter is reading about physics and astronomy. As the white stuff piles up and daily living is more of a chore of shoveling snow and hauling wood, to curl up and read about the tiny world of quarks or the vast world of galaxies is delicious.

Right now I am reading Lisa Randall’s new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (selected by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings as one of the top 15 books she has read this year—a list, BTW, guaranteed to make you feel inadequate.)

Randall talks about dark matter, the concept of which I couldn’t quite grasp for a long time, but now I do. We can’t see dark matter because it doesn’t reflect light and we can’t feel it because its force is too weak to have an effect on us at its level in our everyday lives. But we know it exists because in greater densities it exerts a gravitational force. And not only that, but there is much more of it than the matter we can see. So the truth is, we are literally surrounded by dark matter.

Love that.

As I grow older, more experienced, less sanguine, and more settled into convenience, the awareness of the vast mystery of our Universe is a tonic. And that, perhaps, is the real fountain of youth.

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