Friday, February 10, 2012

Mary Oliver's Inspiration

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!

What a task

to ask

of anything, or anyone...”

Mary Oliver excerpt from Snow Geese

It was an iconic moment that didn’t register on any paparazzi’s meter. But, I was there to record it in my memory. Less than five feet from where I sat poised to hear an inspirational talk, my curiosity and awe were tuned to high gear as I witnessed my two favorite poets in the entire world—Mary Oliver and David Whyte—meet for the first time. Surreal and amazing I watched the creator of Why I Wake Early nod and clasp hands with the author of What to Remember When Waking. It was a dreamlike moment and I invited myself to pause and consider if indeed I might still be sleeping.

Mary Oliver arrived as keynote guest for Seattle University’s Search for Meaning book festival. The jam-packed audience had high expectations for her appearance... certain that she would entertain and enlighten us with her sage wisdom and poetic words. She would inspire. We would connect. Oh, I pause and shake my head when I read those words of “expectation.” They are always a set up for disappointment. We put our heroes on a mountaintop and then dare them to reach the trembling heights. It is a daunting task.

Several weeks earlier, I spent an entire day mesmerized by the charisma and talent of David Whyte and for some comical reason I expected the same level of engagement from Mary Oliver. How audacious of me to make such a comparison! While she is a Pulitzer prize winner and world-renowned author, she is nonetheless a private woman who prefers spending hours in the woods scratching notes out with a pencil over sitting at her typewriter composing or reading to a room full of adoring fans. David Whyte thrives on sharing with corporate environments and regaling his audiences with hair-raising tales and adventures with the late John O’Donohue. He recites poetry (his and others) from memory in multiple languages with ne’er a note nearby.

Ms. Oliver offers deadpan humor and acquires a twinkle in her voice when she speaks of her departed and beloved dog, Percy. She is humble and mumbles to herself while shuffling through misnumbered pages to read her poetry rather than recite it. Her poems are wondrous and she delivered them to us one after another without pause. I found myself wanting more... perhaps a result of left-over comparisons to Whyte who offers the gift of verse repetition which allows his words to sink in and meld deeply into our bones. Mary unceremoniously tossed them into the air and swiftly moved onto the next as if the previous was of slight significance. She left us hanging and desiring more.

What did I expect or want? I wanted to be immersed in her words and presence. She offered the words and in the literal sense she was present. Was it my own demanding thoughts that left me wanting more? The practice of Buddhism invites us to consider whether our motives are pure as we encounter others and also to want what we get. As I ponder that day’s encounter and my potential disappointment that my hero didn’t quite reach my mountaintop as she shuffled from poem to poem, I realize my motive in observing her wasn’t pure. It was for me and my entertainment. In this way of being, I threatened to miss what was lovely. And as I consider the second premise—to want what we get—I find myself applauding for the humbly, mumbly award-winning woman. Did she inspire? Absolutely! Was it entertaining? No doubt! Her way was just not the way I expected. She delivered something even better—a lasting impression that gave me volumes to ponder... much like her poetry. Who could ask for anything more? Well done, Ms. O and Thank You for being you! You inspire us each to do the same.

sunrise on Mt. Sinai © KSH 2010

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