Having met with a favorite friend, Sara, for breakfast at the restaurant, Toast, I was feeling happy and open-hearted as I strolled up West Portal Avenue last Monday, a warm spring day. I wandered into the Bookshop and bought a few books for a favorite little friend whose 2nd birthday is coming up soon. There was a display of a new Mary Oliver book of selected works, so I bought that too, for me.
At home, I placed Mary Oliver on my bedside table. I usually wake up well before 7am and as there’s nowhere I have to be so early, I’ve started reading a few of her poems each morning. Besides, it’s cold, and who wants to climb out of bed yet?
So I peruse. Many of her poems, I love. Most, I’m sure, are the same other people love. The Journey, Wild Geese, and The Summer Day. When Death Comes and In Blackwater Woods are two of my favorites.
This morning I found a new one. New to me. It starts off —
walking for hours through the woods,
I don’t know what I’m looking for,
maybe for something shy and beautiful to come…
It resonated. I’m always thinking I’d like to be walking in the woods. Perhaps as a fly on Mary Oliver’s notepad? Or in human form, alongside a curious friend, someone willing to stop often, look, admire, not mind if I take pictures, discuss what we see, go off on tangents, come back.
In reality though it doesn’t happen. Well, hardly ever. For one, I live in a city. In THE city, we say around here. It’s a drive to get anywhere rural (that’s not entirely true — there’s Glen Park canyon and Golden Gate Park, etc IN the city). There’s some really beautiful areas to travel to, but I’d almost certainly be facing traffic jams of one sort and another which I’m not into so much these days. Also, the curious friend I described above, well, it just doesn’t happen. Anyway, in the woods, I’d probably be afraid of getting Lyme disease from some tick newly jumped off a passing deer. (I wonder how Mary Oliver avoided that?)
Or of running into some murderous man, just my luck. A week ago I had one of those nightmares (not real life, a nightmare), a murderous man at my front door, breaking into my house. Then two days ago, I watched a murder mystery that was British or Irish, and unexpectedly gore-y. I rely on the Brits, Aussies, Irish, and Scandinavians to be more psychological, less physically brutal than American tv and film. I wasn’t ready for it. It took me by surprise and horrible images have haunted me since.
In real life, I was happy and relieved to hear they caught the decades long sought-after serial murderer-rapist in Sacramento yesterday. I was not happy, however, to hear some of the gore-y details and a snippet of his voice the media relished playing over and over. I will kill you. I will kill you. Voice identification, you know? It was beyond grim, and once I hear it, it’s like one of those earworms (usually a song that gets stuck in your head and repeats over and over). Really? I needed this?
My life has become a bit of a wanderment, which yes, like it sounds, includes wonder, wandering, and predicament. I heard a review at the end of Fresh Air the other day about this book, The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hempl. The review was 4 star and all thumbs up. I decided to buy it. I’d like to know more about the art of a wasted day, which I’m pretty sure has something to do with wandering.
Wandering, as I understand it, not having yet read the book, does not require a woods, or even city streets, though it does require some element of openness to surprise and newness, so the path should not be too familiar.
I take my trusty camera wherever I go, even if it’s just to the kitchen. One never knows how the light might be entering, or what I might notice for the first time. There is plenty of beauty around when one wanders and looks — paying attention.
Early yesterday morning in my bedroom, I took this photo of a new plant.
Still, it’s not always beauty that shows up, especially when the wandering is internal. Sometimes there’s an unexpected murder or a holocaust of one sort or another to remember.
To hold the entire spectrum of human life in reverence is an art, the art of compassion and self-compassion and bravery —Oliver names her book Devotions. Here’s the poem I read this morning that set my mind wandering over its own internal landscape. I’m still a little shell shocked from being exposed this week to images and sound tapes of murderous behavior in nightmare, film, and real life.
I’ve been sick on and off all winter. This last 2 month-bout took the writing right out of me. I’m working on a comeback. Yesterday, at the charming, obscurely-located cafe I recently discovered, I wrote a very long essay. I felt happy being there and writing it. But it was too long, containing several topics, all very dark. (Here are four of the several topics in yesterday’s essay: Books I have been gifted. The difference between being a patriot and a traitor. On being a semi-failed high school student and wanting to go to Brandeis. On the issues of privacy, technology, and social media).
I thought I’d give it another go today. Looks like I’m still wandering on the dark side. This, however, is my less-dark version of dark.
ps… Speaking of walks in the woods, when I was 20, working in a hippie jewelry store on Haight Street, there was a customer, an older gentleman (maybe 30 or 40?), a photographer, who would sometimes come in and chat and show me his photographs, which were not bad. He seemed nice enough. Eventually he asked if I would go to Muir woods with him so he could take nude photos of me in the woods. I went. He took photos. He did not kill me. He did not even touch me. The whole time I was there with him I thought he might. Kill me, that is. I thought how stupid I was to have agreed to be his model. The photos were artsy (like the photos he’d shown me before), not pornographic, and though he gifted me a few of them I never kept them because they reminded me of how scared I’d felt.
1945-1985: Poem for the Anniversary
by Mary Oliver
walking for hours through the woods,
I don’t know what I’m looking for,
maybe for something
shy and beautiful to come
frisking out of the undergrowth.
Once a fawn did just that.
My dog didn’t know
what dogs usually do.
And the fawn didn’t know.
As for the doe, she was probably
down in Round Pond, swizzling up
the sweet marsh grass and dreaming
that everything was fine.
The way I’d like to go on living in this world
wouldn’t hurt anything, I’d just go on
walking uphill and downhill, looking around,
and so what if half the time I don’t know
what for —
so what if it doesn’t come
to a hill of beans —
so what if I vote liberal,
and am Jewish,
or Lutheran —
or a game warden —
or a bingo addict —
and smoke a pipe?
In the films of Dachau and Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen
the dead rise from the earth
and are piled in front of us, the starved
stare across forty years,
and lush, green musical Germany
shows again its iron claw, which won’t
ever be understood, but which did,
slowly, for years, scrape across Europe
while the rest of the world
Oh, you never saw
such a good leafy place, and
everything was fine, my dog and the fawn
did a little dance,
they didn’t get serious.
Then the fawn clambered away through the leaves
and my gentle dog followed me away.
Oh, you never saw such a garden!
A hundred kinds of flowers in bloom!
A waterfall, for pleasure and nothing else!
The garden furniture is white,
tables and chairs in the cool shade.
A man sits there, the long afternoon before him.
He is finishing his lunch, some kind
of fruit, chicken, and a salad.
A bottle of wine with a thin and beaded neck.
He fills a glass.
You can tell it is real crystal.
He lifts it to his mouth and drinks peacefully.
It is the face of Mengele.
the doe came wandering back in the twilight.
She stepped through the leaves. She hesitated,
sniffing the air.
Then she knew everything.
Th forest grew dark.
She nuzzled her child wildly.