The Gaze of a Lion | Words of Wednesday

From “Serengeti” by Mary Oliver:

Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
is part of the idea of God?

. . .

the bone-breaker,
and the agent of transformation?
No doubt, in the beginning,
he rose out of the grass

like a fire–
as now he rises out of the grass,
like a fire,
gleaming and unapproachable,

and notices me,
and fixes me with his large,
almost fatherly eyes,
and flexes his shoulders.

I don’t know
anything so beautiful as the sunlight
in his rough hair.
I don’t know

where I have seen such power before–
except perhaps in the chapel
where Michelangelo’s God,
tawny and muscular,

tears the land from the firmament
and places the sun in the sky
so that we may live
on the earth,

among the amazements,
and the lion
runs softly through the dust,
and his eyes, under the thick, animal lashes,

are almost tender,
and I don’t know where I have been
so frightened,
or so happy.

A Couple of Lions


Today, I miss Africa.

Excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem “Serengeti” in her collection House of Light (1990).

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Have I Lived Enough? | Words of Wednesday

The Gardener

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

Mary Oliver


From Mary Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings.

The year (my year) is drawing to a close, and I find myself wrestling (as always) with questions of what it means to live well, to live fully. Have I shown up enough? Have I been present enough? Have I done enough? Have I been enough?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But I do know that I got up every weekday morning, drank matcha, and talked to, fed, played with, cuddled, and generally spent time with my nephew. 

And, somehow, none of the rest of it seems to matter quite as much.

Magnus and Aunty Kar laughing on the couch

The Only Life You Can Save | Words of Wednesday

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver


This poem is not unproblematic. Especially in the deeply individualistic world we inhabit. And yet, there’s something here all the same. Something dangerous and sacred and true. At the end of all things, the soul stands alone before God. (At least on some level, at least in some sense.)

Did you do the only thing you could do? Did you save the only life you could save?

Quoted in Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living.  

I Go Down to the Shore | Words of Wednesday

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver


From Mary Oliver’s collection A Thousand Mornings. 

The Old Poets | Words of Wednesday

The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

–Mary Oliver


Introduced to be by a former student (and current poet) who used to visit my classroom during breaks to share beautiful words. From Mary Oliver’s collection Why I Wake Early. It speaks to the contemplative at my core.

Our Real Work | Words of Wednesday

Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

–Wendell Berry


I’ve always been a little wary of that most favorite of Tolkien’s quotes: “Not all those who wander are lost.” I’ve never found it particularly comforting, because A. it implies that some wanderers still are lost and B. it doesn’t offer much hope for that lostness. I far prefer this alternative which I ran across recently through Anne Lamott, who quotes it in her book Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Formatting is thanks to Gratefulness.org.

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.