One day you finally knew what you had to do: a poem by Mary Oliver

Pack Square Fountain 16 by anoldent via FlickrTime to move on but not packed yet?

Have you ever been at a turning point in your life when you know you will be moving on?  You are beginning to pack but not going yet?  When people around you assume that you will be there for ever and yet you know you will not?

What is the word or phrase for this time just before dawn?

Crossing the Rubicon

The psychology of ‘leaving the house’ is well known.  We call it crossing the Rubicon.  The psychologist most associated with this phenomenon is Peter Goldwitzer.

Crossing the Rubicon feels good but is also a dangerous time. We are so committed that we don’t listen.

Resolving but unresolved?

There is not a lot written about the less definitive time that comes before.  Indeed, psychologists seem to think that if we just behave like someone who has crossed the Rubicon, all the issues on our side of the river will be resolved.

But surely this state of being neither here nor there is worthy of its own respect?

As ever I turn to poetry.   Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem about someone who is just about to set out and is still very attached to the world they are in.

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

Do you feel the “whole house begin to tremble” and the “old tug at your ankles”?

Are you about to step into the world “determined to save the only life you could save?

Mary Oliver is still alive and writing  If we want more, we should all go out and buy one of her books or send one to someone we love.  Here is the link to Mary Oliver at Amazon.

The ups and downs of the Hero’s story

When your story, which genre do you use?

Are you the Hero?

Were you rollicking along quite happily when an unexpected call for your attention, effort and skills arrived out-of-the blue?

Did you hesitate but eventually relent?

Was your journey rocky at moments, yet in quite surprising ways, did the world come out to help you?

Did you triumph eventually, though most of the time you thought you would fail, horribly?

Did you come home at last, and sadly find an unappreciative audience?

You might be a Villain of course

You were rollicking along quite happily doing your thing when, suddenly, you had a chance to do something, well, not so honest, pleasant or fair to advance your cause?  And you took your chance.  You succeeded wonderfully.  You have the champagne and fast car to prove it but you will never be a push-over again?

Or you might be a Tragic Victim

You weren’t rollicking along quite happily and you got the call for your attention anyway.  And it was a pain in the rear end.  And it all went badly.  As it always does.

Do you prefer the Hero story?

We tell all three stories but it seems that we like the first best.  We like the scary Hero story which comes out OK in the end.

But it is very scary along the way.

1  Refusal of the call

We no more want to accept the call than we want to get up at 5am on a Sunday morning.  Our creature comforts are important to us.   But equally we are glad, pretty much as we do when we are up and about before sunrise. Our horizons widen and we feel vital and alive.  It’s a viseral thing.  It’s not scientific or measured by a questionnaire. It’s visceral.   We feel our pulse quicken.  We feel engaged.  We feel that we are living.

2  Trials and Tribulations

Yes, we have the special skills and qualities to pull this off for those who ask, but it is a big ask.  And failure flashes before us.  It really seems that this is the one that will get away.

And not everyone wants us to succeed, either.  There are plenty who would have us fail and will do their utmost to make sure we do.

Yet, there are others who come out to help us.  Once we have got over our earlier procastination and unwillingness to get going, the universe conspires to help us.

We don’t know that we will succeed.  But we do that we want to, for ourselves, for the people who asked, and for the people who joined us along the way.  Our desire to succeed makes the possibility of failure all the more scary.

3  The return

And the oddest feature of all in the hero’s story is the disorientation we feel on our return.

We may be a hero returned from a war.  We might have won a gold medal at the Olympics.  We may have graduated from uni.

We have the party.  We have the parade.  But it is a let-down.

We aren’t being party-poopers or ungrateful.  It’s just that we are no longer who we were when we began, and nor are the people we left behind.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

Some people don’t try.  They leave again and try to relive their adventure.  Grand prix racing drivers spring into my unkind mind.

Some people go quiet.  Old soldiers do particularly.  People cannot understand what they have gone through.

Others understand that they are in a new phase of their lives.  They engage with the community around them and they bring their new selves to what is happening around them.  They may have a relatively quiet period as they become reoriented and re-weave their place within it.  This can be hard.  But it is easier when we live the question.

How can we, who have been away, find our way in the old life to which we return, but which is really a new place whee we return as a stranger.

What is our call now?  What is our new adventure?  What is the new call from the people around us?

The words of poet Mary Oliver get us a clue.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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And you? I was born for?

Mindful

Every day

I see or hear

something

that more or less

kills me

with delight,

that leaves me

like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It was 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.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these –

the untrimmable light

of the world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

Mary Oliver

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Being me, while not being boring to you

I Want to Write Something So Simply

I want to write something

so simply

about love

or about pain

that even

as you are reading

you feel it

and as you read

you keep feeling it

and though it be my story

it will be common,

though it be singular

it will be known to you

so that by the end

you will think—

no, you will realize—

that it was all the while

yourself arranging the words,

that it was all the time

words that you yourself,

out of your own heart

had been saying.

Mary Olive

Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon, 2009.

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Oh, yes. Exactly what I was looking for. Exploding flavors of life.

Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the

mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever

in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds

will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the

scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

Mary Oliver, Evidence

Dedicated to psychologists everywhere.

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Pleasure, engagement and meaning for a good life

Is happiness = pleasure?

Gaye Prior kindly commented on my post about poetry and positive psychology.

“Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.”

Do positive psychologists equate happiness with pleasure?

I’ve promised to reply in four parts describing the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.  This is the first part.

Principles of positive psychology

Let’s make the 1st principle of positive psychology the study of the positive (rather than the study of the negative or gaps or deficits.)

The 2nd principle is that well-being or happiness has three parts. As Gaye says “Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love.”

Martin Seligman points out that well-being is made up of

The pleasurable life

The engaged life

The meaningful life

There is a questionnaire on the Penn Uni site that anyone can do. The items on the questionnaire flesh out the concepts.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page and pick “measures 3 routes to happiness” under “life satisfaction questionnaires” (2nd last on the page as I write).

Using the ideas of pleasure, engagement and meaning to enrich your life

Here is the description of the three levels of life provided by the psychologists at Penn Uni.

Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction. To measure your satisfaction, use the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Keeping pleasure, engagement and meaning in balance

Few of us have our lives in balance. That is the message for people who live in abundant circumstances.  Seek balance (and stop complaining!).

Seeking pleasure, engagement and meaning in difficult circumstances

For those of who do not live in abundant circumstances, we have serious shortfalls in one area or another and these shortfalls are not under our control.

I am always uneasy about casual interpretations of positive psychology that dismiss reality. Life can be awful.

The point though is what can be done about it?  If something is not under our control, there is little point in railing about it. It it is not under our control then it is not under our control.  Focusing on what is out-of-control just makes us feel helpless.  That was Seligman’s original speciality btw ~ learned helplessness.  Continually focusing on what cannot be done destroys our ability to do anything.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and work with whomever will work with us, to leverage whatever we can. We may not be able to change reality but we can do what we can.

Taking control of what little is under our control increases our chances of surviving difficult circumstances

Doing what we can with people who are important to us also seems to increase our chances of survival. Those chances might be minimal, as they were for later psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived an extermination camp. But they improve.

The overriding rule

We must remember that we have to work with what is under our control. That is you, me, the people around us and what works. Those are our tools.

The importance of pleasure

We should also not neglect the pleasurable life. We should respect fine food, the sunset and the rose growing in the garden. Oddly, savoring and mindfulness, though nowhere near the whole story of positive psychology, start a positive spiral.

Gratitude diaries provoke a spiral of well being.  On a really bad day, feel the earth under your feet. Look at that unexciting doorway of brick and mortar as the most magnificent invitation.

The unfairness of engagement

The engaged life is easy for professional people. We work and like to. Engagement is much more problematic for young people who generally only find ‘flow’ in sports and hobbies. One of the reasons that computer games are popular is that they provide the autonomy, social interaction, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to belong to something meaningful that is often not possible in our educational system.

People in low level jobs also have trouble finding flow in jobs which are poorly designed, micro-managed, and in which they are treated with rudeness and contempt. It is common for people in low level jobs to “recraft”. Why is it that security guards in Zimbabwe are more knowledgeable than shop assistants? Why are domestic help loyal? There is an element of Stockholm syndrome, but there is also a natural tendency to create a job that is satisfying to do.

The fragility of meaning

The meaningful level is provided by being part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine more wars are created by violating this level than by anything more complicated. We are sensitive to exclusion and exclusion ‘crashes’ our psychological structures very quickly indeed (5 to 10 minutes does it.)

When we are victims of exclusion, we can create a temporary protective buffer with savoring, mindfulness and gratitude diaries. Some people use the pleasure principle badly, of course, and take to overeating and drink, both of which have their place in celebration but are ill-advised compensation for lack of  belonging. A walk or smelling a rose allow us to avoid adding a punished body to a battered soul.

Exclusion is devastating.

I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t be too judgemental about people who ‘get it wrong’ because exclusion is devastating.

There is a saying

“when someone in authority like a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, it is like looking in a mirror and not being able to see your face.”

I imagine this is why migrant who “walk both sides of the street” settle better than those who try to assimilate.

Buffering oneself from the impact of exclusion

The antidotes to institutional exclusion (that go beyond a painful social slight) are to develop empathy with others, to show solidarity, and to work on healthy political structures.

We all know the do-gooder who ‘helps’ others. I mean travel the same road as others. Suffer the same risks and share the same glory.

Solidarity is a long road but it is the best road. Mindfulness matters again but not the mindfulness of concrete pleasures. This time we want mindfulness towards the dynamism of the universe.

Simple techniques like closing one’s eyes and listening for the furthest sound can break the cycle of intense stress. Paolo Coelho’s post of today tells us to look expectantly for the magic moments that arrive unannounced and are gone in a twinkle. When we think there is only one microsecond of possibility a day, we pay attention.  Even David Whyte’s line of “everybody is waiting for you” suggests to us that we need to reach out.

In teaching, we often use Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to show that we are part of any situation in which we find ourselves and by showing compassion to ourselves (as opposed to self-pity and indulgence), we help to feel in touch with the movement of the universe. I’ll add the poem at the bottom.

Three levels of a good life

In summary, Gaye identified the three levels of a good life:

  • pleasure ~ respect for beauty and comfort
  • engagement ~ enjoyment of work
  • meaning ~ belonging to something bigger than ourselves

With this layout, pleasure seems as if it is the lower level. It is a level that is easily abused but so to is over-identification with achievement or subordinating ourselves to readily to others.

All three are part of the good life. When life is in a mess, try doing an audit of what is going well in each area. Sometimes the map that follows is surprising.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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The crystal clarity found in the bitterly cold winter of our lives

Cold Poem

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

Mary Oliver

I had been thinking about the giving up of dreams in late middle age and the possibility of giving them a decent burial complete with eloquent eulogy.

Tonight, England is cold and my apartment is cold and Google threw up this poem about cold, or the winter season of our lives, or growing older.  It is in the winter of our lives, that we think hard about what we really want and in strange way, feed on dreams of our youth.  That is an alternative metaphor to a burial.  Dreams of our youth are stored in the barn as fodder to be consumed before summer comes around again with a new harvest?

Poetry to remind us that withdrawing doesn’t solve rejection

Is is easy to retreat from life

Barack Obama said of his natural father – he had difficult life because he did not reach out to people.

When times are difficult, we tend to retreat from the world.  When we are unpopular in the playground, we pick up our toys and go home.  Then we really have no one to play with us.  Do you know that people who are lost in the bush or surrounded by fire actually hide from their rescuers?  When times are bad, we may be tempted to hide.

We may be rejected but it will help us little to go this way

“I am learning to abandon the world
before it can abandon me.
Already I have given up the moon
and snow, closing my shades
against the claims of white.
And the world has taken
my father, my friends.”
By Linda Pastan, a new poet for me.
When we are out of sorts with the world, we must ask ourselves how we can change the conversation and fall in love with life again.
When we are feeling bruised, we might also remember “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.  “You do not have to walk on your knees for 100 miles through the desert . .  You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves . . Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh, and exciting ~ over and over announcing your place in the family of things”.
UPDATE:  I’ve just found this old post and link to a tremendous poem on living with fear
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Poetry of solidarity in hard times

Creeping into our shells

Some people are already having a hard time in the recession.  I can see it on their faces in the village.  And I’m sure there are also many others who are having worse, and who are at home, deeply worried.

If you are one of them, and arrived at this post this weekend, I hope I might persuade you to think back to when you were a kid in the school yard.  What you really hated were the times when other kids wouldn’t play with you.  It was in these times, that we creep into our shell.

But not so, when the teacher took our ball away.  We didn’t go home, or shrink back.  Not at all.  We thought up another game.  And we stuck together.

Solidarity

Sticking together, or solidarity, is the key to surviving bad times, and enjoying them too!

Two poems

If you are still reading, I have two poems for you.  The first is called Wild Geese, and it is by Mary Oliver.   In short, it tells you not to beat yourself up, and to come back out to the yard to play.

The second, I stumbled on the web last night.  It is a love poem, by Nizar Qabbani, and though written by a man for a woman, it reminds us, that togetherness and belonging come from commitment.

Back in those school yard days, there was always one kid, who kept us together and suggested other games.

Come with me

Reach out to someone this weekend?

It does not need to be expensive.  A smile for people in the shops.  A chat over the fence with your neighbour.  A walk with a friend.  A companionable cup of tea.

You may not know whom, but somone may need your solidarity very badly.

Here are the two poems.  I hope they give you comfort and inspiration.

+++++

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

+++++++

Love Compared

by Nizar Qabbani

I do not resemble your other lovers, my lady
should another give you a cloud
I give you rain
Should he give you a lantern, I
will give you the moon
Should he give you a branch
I will give you the trees
And if another gives you a ship
I shall give you the journey.

+++++

P.S.  If you own the copyright for either poem, please do let me know.  And to the authors, I thank you.

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Belonging

“Belonging” is the theme of our age

And we see the theme in contemporary poety: “The House of Belonging” from David Whyte ~ “calling you into the family of things” in Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

Belonging is a hard concept to grasp

Michael Bauwens has drawn this picture showing different understandings of belonging:

  • me as part of a family
  • me as in let-me-be!
  • me as let-me-be(come)
  • And me as going part of the way on the journey with you.

The last is simple explanation of co-creation, the theme of Barbara Sliter’s blog, Co-creatorship, that I came across in the last week or so too.

Belonging in steps

In my own evolving grasp of the concept, I am thinking in THREE steps:

#1 Curiosity

Can I begin the day with curiosity? Which birds are singing? Who is already up-and-about? What will the day bring that is totally unexpected and surprising? No”to do” list for me! Just an early morning welcome to the unknown as it is evolving around me.

#2 Sureness

Can I begin the day with sureness? Can I be sure that my interest in the world will help shape it into a better place, alongside the interest of everyone else. The birds, the cat, the neighbor whose petrol mower is already going and shattering the peace, the motorway 20 miles away, the cup of coffee beckoning, the blogosphere which should be ignored this Saturday . . . That my interest is valued and creates safety for others.

#3  Wholeheartedness

Can I be wholehearted? Can I approach everything I do today with energy, enthusiasm and warmth? Can my wholeheartedness for some or even most of my tasks (it is Saturday!) bring me pleasure and create more energy, enthusiasm, warmth for others, people and tasks?

At the end of the day .  .  .

Can I look back on a day when we have been surprised at what we have accomplished together?

Is the end of my day about something other than the race that we have won or the people we have vanquished?

Can I be surprised at what we discovered together, and how we continue to surprise each other?

Do we go forward to another day, not dizzy with excitement, but astounded, that we have found hidden depths in ourselves with all our failings and limitations? The hidden depths of ourselves and others.

And do other people feel it too? Not necessarily with bear hugs and noisy applause.

Just gentle appreciation of how much their hopes and dreams, their wholeheartedness, brought warmth and enjoyment to the day for me.

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