Pam's Musings

My writing nook at my house in Laramie, WY.

My writing nook at my house in Laramie, WY.

A long time ago or once upon a time, stifled by the desire to get everything right on paper, rendered immobile by my inner and nasty critic, I was encouraged to read Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott.  I have read it numerous times and often wish I could commit it to memory.  Ah, the perfection that comes from the memorized verse.  Lamott strikes out at the need and desire for perfection.  Instead, she pushes me to embrace the messiness of writing, to muse.  She tells me to let go and not worry about destination or the big picture.  She set before me the creed by which my musings are written, by which my inner wild woman craves to live:  “Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right.  Just dance.”  When I muse, and this is a necessary part of my writing process, I don’t look.  I just write.  I hope you enjoy these musings.  I hope you muse as well.  

On Hearing of a Poet’s Death, February 2019

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Outside the window is a landscape of varying levels of gray. Inside, my soul feeds off that flat, cold, forbidding landscape. I feel empty, and I don’t understand why I shed tears about a woman, a poet I never met.

But in a sense, I did meet her. I did meet Mary Oliver. It was many years ago. The memories of the abuse I had experienced as a child and had shoved repeatedly under the rug formed a bulge that I could no longer ignore. I sought help from a capable and compassionate therapist. During a session very early on, she asked me for my patience and went to her computer. She searched for a time and then turned her printer on. She folded the sheet of paper in half, handed it to me, and told me to read it when I was alone, when I had the time to understand and absorb the words on the page. She resumed our session.

I carried the folded page in my backpack, nestled in my day planner, throughout a long day and night of teaching, meetings, family responsibilities, and grading. I relished that I had a message, printed only for me, a secret one. That it bobbed along in my backpack like a soon-to-be friend. That it would perhaps join the many quotations I often scribbled into my planner, in tiny cursive in between meetings with students. It became like the letters that I, newly a teenager, received from my best friend in Virginia when our family followed my father’s military orders to Spain. My father brought the mail home from his ship, Ann having carefully attended to copying the long acronyms and numbers that formed our address—I remember now only a part of the address, CINCNAVEUR. Ann commented in one early letter that the address sounded like nonsense poetry, but poetry nevertheless. Like e. e. cummings, she said.

I cherished Ann’s letters. Filled with simple matters, sprinkled with the dramatic flair of a teenager who insisted she would devote her life to becoming an actress or a writer, Ann’s words calmed me, comforted me, affirmed my emotions and thoughts, urged me toward the self-love that would be a long time in coming. I re-read them till they were in danger of wearing out. But they never did. They were gifts—on three-hole lined paper, folded three times in length, and then once more, on the edge, a bulge that I grew so fond of, in order to fit in the envelope. Because each letter was a gift, and because the first reading was always the most profound, I often carried the still-sealed envelope into the room I shared with my sister, placed it on my pillow, and climbed onto the bed to sit and stare at it. To savor what the letter might be like. To prolong the anticipation.

It was late at night that I opened my day planner and lifted out the page my therapist had given me. There, simple black on white, was a poem, by Mary Oliver, titled “The Journey.” I read it through once, too quickly. I admit that I had to read it several times because I would begin it and then the voices—my mother’s, my sister’s, even my own—swooped in and jabbered, re-crafting the words of the poet into what they wanted to hear.

Then, I took a deep breath. Then another. I slowed my breathing. I read, slowly. I read again, and cried. How did this woman know where I was at this exact moment, emotionally, mentally, and even physically? How did she know the hold that others’ voices had on me, their call, their

insistence, my blindness? “ ‘Mend my life!’ / each voice cried. / But you didn’t stop. / You knew what you had to do . . . .” How did she know what was a stake and what could be attainable? “. . . as you left their voices behind, / the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds . . . .” How did she know that I would find peace if only I would become “determined to save . . . the only life you could save . . .”? For a moment, I truly believed that somehow Mary Oliver knew me.

How was this poet able to go so deep, beyond cliché or standards? To scratch at my truth until, raw, it emerged?

But that’s what the truly gifted poets do, isn’t it? Mary Oliver, as I read more of her poems, did it. For me. Throughout her writing life, she made every effort, took all the time in the world, devoted her life to observing and exploring the world, noting what Nature does that so many of us do not see. Noting what we as humans—hurting and confused and hungry for understanding—do that we cannot see, or choose not to see.

Even though we had never met, Mary Oliver knew me better than I know myself. I wish I had met her, had sat with her, had listened to her, even when she didn’t speak. When I read the news of her death, I couldn’t bring myself to open Upstream, her book of essays. They made me weep even when she was alive. I have wept enough. Instead, I went to my indie book store and bought another of her books, this time New and Selected Poems Volume Two.

Do you ever play that game that involves your opening—with your eyes closed—the dictionary, or the Bible, or your ragged and over-underlined Pelican Shakespeare, and swirling your finger around until you make it land on a spot on the page? You open your eyes, read the word your finger has found, and insist that your whole day will be based on that found treasure? I did that with the book I bought. Eyes closed, I opened to the poem “The Snow Cricket” and to the line/phrase “singing that has no words”. The tiny insect exudes a “singing that has no words / or a single bar of music / or anything more, in fact, than one repeated / rippling phrase / built of loneliness . . . .”

Mary Oliver, I’ve known that repetition, that phrase devoid of words and built of loneliness! I call it prayer. And I’ve thought considerably about prayer these days. How did you know?

I don’t want to lose any more of my writers, those whose words provide me solace in the night when I am finally able to curl into my pillow and prop open their books. Those who know me without knowing me. They ground me, provide me an anchor, help me to understand myself a bit better, help me to see the richness and beauty of the world a bit more clearly. Especially as the earth now seems to spin faster.

A sip of chamomile tea. A sip of Mary Oliver’s poetry. And for a while, the earth slows and is loving. And I feel a gentle breeze of joy.

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for telling me this before you died:
“It is what I was born for— / to look, to listen, / to lose myself / inside this soft world— / to instruct myself / over and over / in joy, / and acclamation.”