My mother – a stoic and a rationalist - put no stock in signs and portents, though she is the one who stirred my young mind with auguries and mystical happenings by reading aloud books of myths and legends: Greek myths; the Song of Roland; a child’s version of the Nibelungenlied; abridged versions of the Iliad and Odyssey; Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Her own feet were planting firmly in this world, especially the natural world that she loved and observed carefully all her life. She would never have missed the arrival of a flock of snow geese, or snow buntings, or a pair of migrating mergansers and the odd loon or two – and would have been sure to tell me about it. These were the everyday miracles of life that gave her joy, and gratitude for every day.
I’m not sure if I told her about the white stone, though I am quite sure we talked at length about the snow geese being on the lake that day and went out together to watch them. Our phone calls always included the daily nature report; she saw a lot and found much more solace in the woods and lake than she ever found in a church. I respected that, and like her, feel sustained by nature. I share her skepticism about reading too much into convergences and chance, but it is also easier for me to suspend my rational mind and approach the mystical; perhaps that is, as much as anything, merely a difference in emotional temperament.
My mother’s favorite poet was Mary Oliver, whose work often includes this sense of the miraculous found in the natural world, venturing occasionally into speculation on the divine but rarely into talk of God as anything separate from life and creation. I’ve often thought it was unfortunate that my mother was raised in a time when religion was so theistic, and God had to be interpreted as a great and powerful male being separate from we lowly humans, let alone from the fast beating breast of a snow bunting or the audible wings of a great blue heron passing over the house. Her turn-off from religion in general created a difference between us that I never quite managed to bridge in words. Oliver expressed what my mother felt, I think, though she rarely spoke of it, other than to call me and ask if I’d seen the latest poem in the New Yorker, or tell me that the peonies just blooming in the garden had reminded her of Oliver’s poem. At the beginning of her new collection, Oliver writes, "My work is loving the world." I think my mother would have agreed.
So I was not surprised today when my friend Dave sent me a
link to this poem, "In the Storm," from Mary Oliver’s new book, Thirst, saying
that my previous post had reminded him of it. Go read it and you'll see why.
Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.