Friday, January 14, 2011


At the beginning of her book of poems, Evidence, Mary Oliver quotes Kierkegaard who wrote, “We create ourselves by our choices.”
I find Oliver’s choice interesting. The quote is clear, inspiring—I get it. It sounds contemporary. It’s catchy. You could put it on a greeting card along with a picture of a great blue heron lifting off the silvery surface of an early morning pond. And the card would sell.
We create ourselves by our choices.  
Who could argue with that? Yes, yes, I know, we don’t create the body we’re born into, or pick our parents, or our neighborhood, though some people think you do pick where, how, when, and to whom you are born.
The quote is powerful. It captures a great deal. It’s succinct. And yet, like all ideas, it misses so much. If it didn’t, why would Mary Oliver have to write the seventy-five pages of poems that make up Evidence?

Kierkegaard also wrote, " the beginning of all deeper understanding".
Can one make the choice to wonder? I wonder.
Wonder, it seems to me, has a sense of being blown away by something, being blown away by the night sky seen from a mountain-top, for instance, or by seeing the face of your child for the first time.
Wonder strikes us. We don’t strike wonder like we might strike gold. We stumble upon it unexpectedly. We can’t really prepare for it. Wonder catches us unawares. But possibly we can make choices that open the door to wonder. But we can only open the door. We can’t step over the threshold. There’s only so far we can go, because we’re too small, too limited, too time-bound. Wonder is our experience of something that’s bigger than we are.
A few lines of poetry may help us get the feel for what I’m trying to say, since good poetry can open the door for us.
Here are the last lines of the last poem in Mary Oliver’s Evidence:

How did it come to be
 that I am no longer young
 and the world
that keeps time

in its own way
has just been born?
I don’t have the answers
 and anyway I have become suspicious

of such questions,
and as for hope,
that tender advisement,
 even that

I’m going to leave behind.
I’m just going to put on
 my jacket, my boots,
 I’m just going to go out

to sleep
all this night
in some unnamed, flowered corner
of the pasture.

Why? Why go out to sleep all night in some unnamed, but flowered, corner of the pasture? Because that’s how she opens the window to which is beyond her. That’s how she let’s the night in, and the light, and the mystery of the world. She makes the choice to open the window, but what happens after that is not up to her. All she can do is make the choice to be receptive to what comes to find her. 
Kierkegaard said, "Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it…"
He ‘walks’ himself into a state of wellbeing. He walks, not thinks, not works, not argues, but walks. He walks, and like Oliver, he lets the world find him and soothe him.
The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
We create ourselves by our choices. But our choices take place in a great mysterious world. Kierkegaard said we are here on sealed orders. There is only so much we can know about who we are, why we are, and where we are. To some degree, we make our choices in the dark. We are limited in what we can know and imagine. We are surrounded by things greater than we’ll ever be.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Man Watching   

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!

What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

            So, go live your life. Make your choices consciously with strength and conviction, but don’t make the world smaller than it is. Make the choice to let in the mystery. Every now and then make the choice to walk away from what you think you know. Go sleep, as Mary Oliver does, in the pasture.
            A few more lines from her, and I bid you adieu.
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?

Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
 full of hesitations,
 questions, choice of directions,

Look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
 Look at the grass.

Namaste. (The wonder in me bows to the wonder in you.)

I can be reached at and 805/680-5572

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