Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Year of activism #14

This is the most unusual of Passover and Easter, Spring ceremonies – all unable to have the rituals of family gatherings, filled churches, music festivals and public celebrations noting the passing of death to life and resurrection.  No school holiday camping trips.  All the adaptations I am hearing about and seeing on line and even participating in a few myself are a testament to our species being great improvisers.  There is a yearning though more than ever for human contact and my  isolation, with all I need, makes the alone-ness a first world problem. Physical distancing is the privilege of the rich.  Once again I am deeply reminded of Mary Oliver‘s question: What is it you plan to do with your one wild precious life?

We are in twilight, like crepuscular creatures coming out in the spaces between day and night on a threshold waiting for the new to begin and more importantly, the old to end.  How we consider, reflect and make note of this time seems to be the work of isolation. If we go back to the used future we failing ourselves, future generations, other species and our Mother Earth.  We would have missed the point, if it comes at the price of totalitarianism being birthed in fear campaigns leveraging on what it means to belong and who is in and who is out. In my own community this is being fueled by signs being put up in public places, by the local Member of Parliament, asking people to stay away if they don’t live in the same postcode. While it is a measure perhaps needed in coast side townships in what would ordinarily be a holiday destination, it is reaching into a base note in our herd mentality and will actually injure our spirit and capacity over time. It is not true, even in these circumstances, that we don’t need each other – in fact it is the opposite – we need each other more than ever. We will not be able to get this virus under control, in these pre-vaccination days, without mutual aid. At the international level it will be an age before borders can be relaxed and travel restrictions lifted.  I can only imagine a future where those have loved ones inter-state, in other countries and indeed other continents will be able to touch one another again.

Activism in a time of twilight is gathering up what we have to take into the night and in equal measure what we need to take into the light.  Like the Easter story we are in waiting for the dawn to arrive, the stone to be rolled away and the transformation from this cocoon to reveal new ways of making sense of the world and co-creating our shared future.

Just as the caterpillar is not like the butterfly, we have this opportunity to be completely transformed and travel in our world differently, seeing forms from new heights and perspectives, feeding on the same plants perhaps but with a much lighter touch, flying over landscapes with beauty instead of chomping our way through leaving a trail of destruction.

Praxis is what has underscored my activism over the years. Paolo Friere taught it is through education and building urgency, finding the restlessness, the experience of being impatient and holding onto hope while critically examining our oppression, that opens up the creative reflection and practical action. This is unlocked and unleashed in the learning process itself.  We have this time, in our privilege, those of us in that situation, to be students to this isolation and learn what revolution it is calling us to, or from an element of this Christian season – what metanoia – what are we being called to turn around. There is nothing neutral here, we are called to be actors in our own liberation and work collectively to discover how we might go forward and those of us with the luxury of isolation can make this a time of activism where we examine our part in oppression and how we might come out of the pupa more mature and transformed.


Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash

Sparks will fly #4 #wings

It has been hot, hot, hot this week, plenty of sparks flying when the temperature reaches 46C.  The afterglow of the heat in the sunsets has been spectacular and a reminder of the eternal dance between heaven and earth. We are in a season where bushfires are a sniff on the north wind long before they arrive and so far they have not taken their February Dragon form, as Colin Thiele once wrote.

This has been one of those ordinary weeks full of extraordinary moments. Leigh Sales latest book An Ordinary Day takes a practical examination with her usual curiosity of how your life can change in an instant. You get up in the morning, stretch, do your ablutions, get dressed, have some breakfast … it is an ordinary day … and by the next time you head to sleep you are not the same as you were woke up.  We have all had those days – grief, joy, new job, lost a job, become a wife, become a parent, become a widow. Maybe you have become a hostage, been in a car accident, won the lottery … ordinary people changed forever. This is the human condition as the Buddhists remind us – suffering, death, impermanence. Everything will pass. All the more reason to savour those moments full of spark and energy and build as fuel for the times when there might be little in the tank, and for resilience when a withdrawal is needed.

So far this year I have woken up more times in other people’s houses than I have in my own, the equation will balance out in no time at all. Waking up in new places is a metaphor all of its own, and when those moments come to shake us all about and rip us from moorings or rise us to new heights, we do get woken up again and again.  I am noticing there is a theme emerging about paying attention. Thanks Mary Oliver once again, and to miksang practice and Thich Nhat Hanh and Br David Stendl-Rast and Pema Chodron … and all the others over the years who have reminded me to pay attention.  I can see times when I have not been awake, have turned away, not wanted to look, not wanted to pay attention, moved too quickly to the next moment.  Being in the moment is one of those universal truths to co-operate with the foundations of impermanence and embrace the invitation to pay attention. Each little spark has the potential to be something bigger like a bushfire – and with it to be destructive, cleansing impurities, turning sand to glass, healing the earth, bringing ancient seeds to life.

I went to sleep last night after one of those days. A day of joy and filling up. A day of harvest and recognition. A day putting fuel into the reserve resilience tank to draw on into the future. A day where simplicity and complexity and mixed emotions combined. A day where the evidence of collaboration, secret squirrels and bureaucracy, contrived a gift. I received an Australian Honour. It is an AM – Australia Medal and for those who don’t know about these things – it is prestigious.  I discovered the nomination had been put in nearly two years ago and with the efforts of a band of friends, colleagues, peers and family providing all the details and evidence required by the process hosted by the Governor-General’s office.  Many of the contributions have been invisible and to have them out in the open with this shorthand of two letters to tell that story is very touching and I do feel honoured.

I could give a litany of actions public, private and some in-between – just as we all could – that are in the service of others. That is really the point – we spark off each other. Someone else’s need is another’s gift and more often than not, the gift of time, talent and/ or energy transmitted is helping the giver as much, if not more, than the receiver.  That has been true for me anyhow. I have learnt new things, discovered new opportunities, found ways to work around problems, created and amplified, had fun and generally been well and truly rewarded by seeing something come to fruition or a person blossom and bloom.

This relationship between service and paying attention is so brilliantly reflected in the arts. How often do we get to see with new eyes through a creative paying attention? So it was very fitting that I ended up at the close of play yesterday with the sun setting behind me while I sat on a butterfly chair, created by a local woman (Anna Small) who could see wings.  One of the conversations I had during the week, one of those moments to carry me through a lifetime, was an invitation to see this time as encased in a cocoon, liquified and not yet fully formed into a new creature. At this moment encased in a silk, protein, hard purse hosting the changes hidden inside, first spun by the old being before the new one forms. This spark of insight to see the old form having first spun the protective coating to enable the new to form is so obvious once I pay attention. I am exploring what branch my chrysalis is hanging from and how delicate the wings will be when they unfurl wet and perhaps still a little bit gooey. What was hidden on the inside, is woven around and then voila – something new that was already there!

After the winter, there is spring, after the chrysalis, there are wings. Now in this moment, and coming soon, are dangerous and noble things, calling for lightness, improbability, boldness and bravery.  Sparks. Will. Fly.


…..Extract from Starlings in Winter by Mary Oliver

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, 2003

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Sparks will fly #3 #taking

Riffing off a conversation during the week about the difference between giving and receiving and giving and taking has set some sparks flying.  I am pretty good at giving and I am getting better at receiving but the idea of taking that is foreign territory. What does it mean to take?  Literally to grab something with both hands, yank it into your life, pull it towards you feels a little violent and perhaps even greedy or entitled … but what if it was about showing up, leaving nothing to chance, proactively and decisively making a claim? I think I am out of practice at taking a trick. We played a lot of cards and board games when I was growing up but no so much in recent times.  I steered away from competitive activities and have somehow aligned taking with competition – if I have something then someone else doesn’t.  This is not true.  That is a scarcity mentality and that doesn’t line up with my usual approach to life around abundance.

Taking and giving are not mutually exclusive. I can take a photograph and enhance the beauty of what is there and see something new and give that to others. I can take a position and advocate to be more inclusive which opens up, not closes down possibilities. I can take what I imagine is potentially mine and that need not be taking from another or from someone else’s future. There is intentionality in taking that feels quite different to the humility of receiving.  This is sparking me up to consider what might I like to take from this time?  What might I want to manifest, grab with both hands … make happen, instead of passively let happen?  Alert: No children will be harmed in the making of taking.

With the death of Mary Oliver this week I have been reflecting on her legacy to future generations and how even a tiny spark of her talent has held me many times. She took from the natural world and shared her insights. She absorbed, at a cellular level the lessons of all things elemental. While we received, she did take, and knead and hold and filter and fuse. I am sure she would have seen her taking as necessary for her to give.  In fact her instruction is quiet clear in her famous One Summer Day poem meditating on the grasshopper – what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  Embedded in that line is a confirmation and imprimatur, to be wild, accept your life as uniquely precious and irreplaceable, unable to be replicated as each day, each moment to be spent by only you and the way to you spend it. Making a plan includes giving, receiving and taking. Paying attention to falling down, kneeling, rolling in the grass, gazing around, floating away – these are all instructions from the school of life and living includes pushing through pain barriers in dark days, unfurling wings while they are still wet, moving the jaws up and down, ruminating, chewing through things hard to swallow, being nourished and fed in the process.  I don’t know what a prayer is either, but the spark to consider taking as well as receiving and not making anyone else the poorer, weaker or losing in the process that may also make be richer, stronger and a winner along the way is worth considering … and even a bit of planning.  Here’s to the summer day!

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
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 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?

by Mary Oliver


Photo by Chris Galbraith on Unsplash

ps To hear or read an interview with Mary Oliver and Krista Tippett from On Being click here.


First breath

Cape Town Anglican Cathedral - walking the labyrinth and a feather on the path

Cape Town Anglican Cathedral – walking the labyrinth and a feather on the path

Breathing life into a blog seems like the best way to start.

The year is coming to an end and this is a year that I dedicated to reading and listening to more poetry – I made a small start and read more of Mary Oliver and David Whyte and also read some of the poet laureate of Kazakhstan Olzhas Suleimenov. I also spent time enjoying the poetry in the company of songs by Eric Bogle, Paul Kelly, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. I love the sound of poetry put to music in song and the lyric and the tune finding each other and hugging the sounds and the syllables together.

Amidst the poetry life flowed too and when I think of Hildegard’s poetic wisdom in words and pictures I always seem to come back to her phrase ‘ a feather on the breath of God’. David Whyte says good poetry begins with the lightest touch and I am sure Hildegard would be satisfied with this thought.  So too I want this blog to be about the lightest touch, the feel of a feather against the skin,or gently floating on a summer’s breeze.

I am also reminded of one of my favourite tales where the dove is asked by the coal- mouse: How much does a snowflake weigh? And the dove answers “nothing more than nothing and the tale goes:

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal-mouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow — not heavily, not in a raging blizzard — no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch — nothing more than nothing, as you say — the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coal-mouse ran away.

The dove, an authority on this since the time of Noah, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

These elements of air and space – a single breath, a feather, the lightest touch, a snowflake – all call me to a place of knowing my smallness is significant and perhaps all that the world needs right now and it is my inheritance to breathe and be alive even in the moments I want to hold my breath.

This is my first breath to bring my blog to life.

The Lightest Touch

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.

— David Whyte
from Everything is Waiting for You 
©2003 Many Rivers Press