One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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
I have not been listening to myself, I realize now. It’s not like I haven’t been talking (I have), but I haven’t heard what I’ve been saying. Because I thought I was talking (or more accurately, writing) to you. You, my reader. Let me see if I can explain.
Three or four times in the last month, I’ve tried to pen a blog, but each time I’ve pulled back, feeling like I was writing around something, rather than into it. It was discouraging – not being able to complete an essay. Writing is always hard, of course, but it is usually an enjoyable challenge for me – to locate the thread, weave it through, and tie it up. Even better is the opportunity to offer the reader a takeaway – something useful or inspiring, or at least a story that makes one nod along in recognition, feeling less alone knowing there are others who feel the same way.
In the best of both worlds, a personal essay is both illuminating to the reader and cathartic for the writer. But what I have been trying to write lately I now view as pure navel-gazing. Of course I sensed this, which is why I kept stalling out. I’d drive down a long, twisting road, take a fork, then another, and realize that anybody following me was now surely lost. Yet stubbornly I’d turn around and go down the road again — pursuing the same topic, thinking there must be something inherently beneficial to writing about it.
Turns out there was! Only it was beneficial to me, not to you. (But hold on, I do have something for you.) I didn’t see or hear it at first, but gradually I realized that the hands on my keyboard had taken the gibberish inside my head, translated the whole mess, sorted my thoughts into a logical framework, and displayed them on the screen in front of me. There, to the left of the blinking cursor, was the thing that had been puzzling me.
I finally understood that solving this puzzle was important to me; it needed my attention. But not yours.
Yet here’s the takeaway for you: Write.
Writing is an excellent way to reach that place inside yourself that may not feel like it has a voice. It’s a way to capture your feelings and articulate them, to quantify your spirit. You never know what might be pulsing in your fingertips as they hover over the keys.
You don’t have to keep a daily journal, or write complete essays, or show your writing to anyone else. You don’t even need to write down more than a sentence at a time. But you do need to hold on to what you’ve written. The big idea here is to collect your thoughts so that you can look back at them from time to time. You’ll find out what really matters to you.
While you’re collecting your own thoughts, collect those of others, too. Grab snippets and quotes and excerpts and poems that you like and stash them all in a little notebook that will become a gift to your future self. I started my wisdom notebook in the early days of my sobriety to try to keep hold of the good and useful things I was hearing. Over time I added poems (like those from Mary Oliver I’ve included here) and passages from books and favorite authors.
By gathering what I like, I’ve learned that the topics I gravitate to most are grace, faith, addiction, spirituality, nature, the psyche, family, gratitude, honesty, fear, responsibility, and materialism.
I look at this notebook frequently for advice and reminders:
“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” — Annie Dillard
“Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires.” — Gerard May
“Grace is accepting the fact that in the end we are accepted, despite being unacceptable.” — Paul Tillich
“What we are looking for already resides within us.”
It was reading this notebook the other night that sent me back to look at what I’d been writing recently, that opened my eyes and ears to see and hear what I was trying to say to myself. It was my younger self reminding my older self of how wild and precious life is (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) and that “whoever you are…the world offers itself to your imagination.”
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.
— Mary Oliver
LISTEN TO KRISTA TIPPETT TALK WITH MARY OLIVER
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