How do we live a life? And what kind of life do we want to live? Mary Oliver asked these questions in her poems and essays, throughout her life. Each morning my sons see these words from her poem “Sometimes” next to their bathroom mirror:
Instructions for Living a Life:
Tell about it.
With Oliver’s recent passing, I found myself revisiting some of her poems that I have long loved, words that somehow anchored me and opened me at once much like the anchoring and opening that occurs in my physical body when I attempt tree pose or half moon–both poses require a sort of flight and also a solid rooting down. Attention and astonishment.
Mary Oliver was a walking poet. She often found her inspiration while on her feet, scribbling in a notebook as she went. Recently I was relistening to an interview with Mirabi Bush from the podcast On Being. In the interview, Ms. Bush refers to The Tree of Contemplative Practices. The tree’s roots are communion, connection, and awareness. The branches lead off into the seven categories of practices: creation process, movement, stillness, activist, generative, ritual/cyclical, and relational. There are many different activities/options listed underneath the larger branches of practice, for example storytelling is beneath relational practices and bearing witness is under activist practices. Yoga is beneath movement practices.
For the past year or so, I have been attempting to meditate but I am the kind of person that wakes up with my mind already buzzing as though some unseen pause button was hit just long enough for me to sleep but the minute I’m awake, the buzz begins. I try to “notice” my thoughts the way Pema Chodron suggests in her book “How To Mediate” but so far it feels more like a firehose of noise rather than a few noticeable thoughts. When Chodron mentioned walking meditation, or moving meditation, my interest was piqued. When I roll out my mat and step on to that space I’ve laid out for myself, it’s absolutely my time to pay attention. I don’t ignore that my shoulder is sore, or that my knee hurts if I balance on it too long–I notice and compensate and stay in the flow as best I can. I notice my breathing getting ragged and know to slow my breath, notice my balance is off and remember to tighten my core. In our society that often requires much hurry and rush and just pushing through, I’ve come to appreciate the time yoga gives me in which to simply notice.
One of Mary Oliver’s most known poems, “The Summer Day”, reminds me how savasana can feel some days as I’m letting the practice sink in, my mind cleared, my body tired but also sensing strength and rejuvenation:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed…
Perhaps the grass, for us flowgi types, is the mat, the practice, the showing up we require of ourselves when we arrive to class and begin to pay attention. I have many friends who say they don’t have the patience for yoga and I sometimes don’t know how to explain to them what practicing yoga has done for me, how it’s caused me to learn so much, about myself, and given me so many lessons that follow me off the mat. There are many parts to each of my days, but if I am lucky enough to get an hour or so of my life spent in a yoga class I’m gifted with renewed focus, and energy–and the space in which to be astonished at my own awareness of things. Mary Oliver’s passing is a sorrow. Her words still offer up her gifts. It is easy to imagine using the last lines from “The Summer Day” to explain to my friends about why I keep spending so much time in yoga class:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
— Rebecca Brock