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Mary Oliver


“A walk with Sophie would always be a slow walk, stopping every few steps to examine a flower or a stick or a bug…or the ants,” says Bishop Jeremy Greaves

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Just yesterday I watched an ant crossing a path, through the
tumbled pine needles she toiled.
And I thought: she will never live another life but this one.
And I thought: if she lives her life with all her strength
is she not wonderful and wise?
And I continued this up the miraculous pyramid of everything
until I came to myself.

And still, even in these northern woods, on these hills of sand,
I have flown from the other window of myself
to become white heron, blue whale,
red fox, hedgehog.
Oh, sometimes already my body has felt like the body of a flower!
Sometimes already my heart is a red parrot, perched
among strange, dark trees, flapping and screaming.

Mary Oliver, from ‘Reckless’

I recently went to watch my niece play basketball. I arrived after the game had started and cast my eyes over the players on court to see if I could see Sophie. After a couple of moments I saw her – she was sitting cross-legged in the far corner of the court, with her nose about an inch from the ground…watching the ants as they busily went about their work.

A walk with Sophie would always be a slow walk, stopping every few steps to examine a flower or a stick or a bug…or the ants.

I can imagine Mary Oliver doing the same on her early morning walks through the woods and wetlands near home. She said of her daily practice that she simply walks and pays attention – stopping occasionally to jot down a note. “When things are going well,” she says, “you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!”

“To pay attention,” she says, “this is our endless and proper work.” In another poem her ‘Instructions for living a life’ are: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

The English writer Philip Toynbee says, “the basic command of religion is not ‘do this!’ or ‘do not do that!’ but simply behold.”

Mary Oliver knew this truth when she wrote, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” And likewise when she finished the opening essay in Upstream by saying, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

And in our prayer, Oliver invites us to “just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks.”

Oliver’s delight was always in the ordinary, the drab, the common place. The world is filled with wonders and she says it was her life-long task to find them.  In one of her poems she says that her work, “is standing still and learning to be astonished.”

Sophie watching ants

Sophie paying attention

She offers a wonderful antidote to a world where our default is so often cynicism and weariness and grumpiness. Where we sometimes pass though whole days or weeks, sometimes years without actually paying attention to what is happening around and within us.

Again and again the Gospels call us to “Wake up”, to “Pay attention”, to “Look!” As well, they call us to be like the little ones, as children.

In ‘Spring’, she wrote, “There is only one question: How to love this world.” And through her poems she suggests that the answer to that question is in attention, devotion, gratitude, continuing curiosity, presence of mind and a commitment in all of our lives to attend fully that that which is in front of us. All these are “muscles”, after a fashion, and Mary Oliver showed us we can build and sustain them over a long period of time – without ever getting near a weight room!

All they require is the practised gaze, the appreciative stare, the open heart, the simple – but not easy – commitment to attend fully to what is in front of us.

“Nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,” she says in the poem ‘Terns’, “Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.”

In the back corner of the basketball court I gave up trying to get Sophie to join the others trying to throw an inflated piece of rubber through a distant hoop. Instead I joined her, cross-legged on the ground watching the ants.

Author’s note: Photos of Sophie were taken by me and used with permission of Sophie’s mum.

First published in the June 2022 edition of The Eagle, the magazine of St John’s Cathedral. Read the latest edition of The Eagle online.

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