Category: reflection

‘When Death Comes’, Mary Oliver

You can read this poem here.

Whenever I’ve shared poetry in groups, and we’ve explored this poem, it has always had resonances for the participants. Whether the groups are about loss, mortality, love of nature, mindfulness, the search for meaning, ways to live more happily in this bewildering, bruising but also beautiful world… whatever the immediate focus, people find nourishment in this poem. It speaks to them.

The images of death are so simple, but so powerful. That death should ‘[snap] the purse shut’ calls to my mind those old-fashioned purses with the cross-over clasps with spheres on the end of little stalks, which slide across and past each other and shut with such satisfying conviction. I can feel them ‘snap’ home under my fingers as I read those words. Death as a ‘hungry bear in autumn’, feeding urgently, because it must, and willing to take whatever it comes across; death as the dreadful shock of the ‘iceberg between the shoulder blades’—something that dwarfs us and mows us down, without malice or intention, simply because of what it is, and where we happen to be… I find these images unforgettable.

How amazing, though, is where, in Oliver’s hands, these images lead us. Not to lamentation (or not explicitly); but rather, to an honouring of what unites us; to an openness to possibilities; to an acceptance that we all must ‘tend towards silence’; to an honouring of all life as something ‘precious’: and to the determination to live as vividly, intensely, fully as possible. That importance of the distinction between visiting and living isn’t spelled out, but has a quiet profundity which convinces me entirely. This poem gives me a way to think about how I want to live: I don’t want simply to be a visitor here: I want to live here, to belong here, to be a fully-involved citizen of this world, for as long as I am given. And Oliver even suggests how we may do this: by being both bride and bridegroom, ‘married to amazement’, and ‘taking the world in [our] arms’. That might not entirely prevent me being ‘sighing and frightened,/or full of argument’, but it it feels like the very most I can do to minimise that.

Thank you, Mary. I’m so grateful for this poem.

thing 9: ‘married to amazement… taking the world in my arms’: a murmuration of starlings

Extraordinary, mysterious and beautiful. And happening live, in front of us, right here, right now.

At the beginning of part two of his autobiography, Clive James comments on his first sight of snow and the English cityscapes, noting: ‘what I was seeing was a familiar [sight] made strange by being actual instead of transmitted through cultural intermediaries’. Replace the word ‘strange’ in that sentence with ‘make-you-weep wonderful’ and you have something of what it was like to see a murmuration of starlings. I’ve seen them on TV and youtube, seen the images reproduced (read more…)

thing 8: ‘the glazed and brittle palaces’: a few days in Venice

The odd pizza? Yes. Some piazze? Certainly. But… a penis (plus veg. accompaniment), deliberately worn outside the trouser, at a vaporetto stop at 3 in the afternoon? Nobody mentioned that in the guidebooks. No wonder they called the film Don’t Look Now.

Definitely not one of the images I wanted to bring home from Venice. Fortunately I brought home some better ones, too…

… My sister, who hadn’t been that keen on going, stepping from the airport waterbus at our nearest stop, San Stae, and saying very quietly, Wow, as she pulled out her camera to take a picture. She never takes pictures. My Mum, who had always wanted to go, standing on the Rialto bridge for the first time, looking down the Grand Canal. A mixed experience, I’m sure, as (read more…)

thing 7: ‘come, poor Jackself’: a shiatsu session

“…and I don’t need to see your pants.”

Thus runs the unusual—and, to me, quite brilliant—strapline on a poster for a friend’s shiatsu practice.* For those of us with what Clive James has called ‘the right set of personal inadequacies’ (or rather, who feel we have them), the thought of physio, massage, or any other kind of body treatment is often tainted by the prospect of Having To Reveal Our Body To Someone Else.  (read more…)

‘Love (III)’, George Herbert

You can read this poem here. I tried to type it out on the page, as it’s in the public domain, but I wasn’t able to triumph over the pre-formatting on this blog template and I kept losing the indentations in lines 2,4 and 6 of each stanza, so eventually I gave up. It was that or throw the laptop through the window. You know how it is.

Anyway. This poem is the last in Herbert’s long sequence called The Church and, as is evident, is originally a religious poem, which presents a dialogue between a speaker and ‘Love’—Christ—who invites the speaker to receive the gift of the unconditional love of God, made possible through the freely-chosen sacrifice He himself has made on our behalf. Exquisite as this is as a fleshing-out of Christian theology, I add it here, and in connection with this particular post, because I think it can also be read as an extremely psychologically-acute dramatisation of the difficulty we can all feel, sometimes, in accepting love and kindness.

At its least important this might manifest as an exchange along the lines of ‘Your hair looks great today!’. ‘Oh… it really needs washing but I didn’t have time last night’. You know the kind of thing: we probably all know someone who simply cannot receive a compliment (and that someone might just be us ourselves!). This habit of rejection reminds me of Wonderwoman’s magic deflector bracelets, which enabled her swiftly to repel and deflect anything coming her way. That’s great if it’s bad stuff coming towards us; but there’s something sad and serious about how many of us feel only conditionally acceptable/nice/good and therefore find it difficult or impossible to receive the good stuff—be it a not-so-important compliment, or something much more necessary, like care, kindness, love. We can feel we don’t deserve it.

Thus ‘Love (III)’ shows the speaker eager, at first, to receive the love, then losing confidence—’grow[ing slack]/From my first entrance in’—and coming up with all sorts of reasons why he doesn’t deserve it. Yet Love persists—’took my hand, and smiling did reply’—and challenges gently but firmly. The guest (and isn’t it wonderful that he has been invited?: love is something offered and extended to us) comes us with all sorts of excuses, deflections of and proposed diminutions to the “feast” offered: “Me?? I can’t be a guest at this magnificent banquet. I shouldn’t even be here; I’ve got no right to it, I don’t deserve it… Oh, okay then, if you’re really sure; but at least let me help, let me do the washing up….” But then, in the end, because Love persists, the speaker just caves in and accepts.

That eventual collapse into receiving something can be sudden, and lovely, and often painful, because it means letting go of the fears and the hurt. Acceptance—self-acceptance—is (as I see it) at the centre of the work clients do in therapy; it’s my job to try to provide a relationship within which they can come to see that they are lovable. Just as in this poem, it can be such a struggle to dare to believe that you are OK, or OK-enough. It’s hard, hard work. But though the ‘sit[ting] and ‘eat[ting] is the end of a struggle (as it’s the end of the poem and of The Church as a whole) it’s also the beginning of something else: of a new and potentially beautiful way of being, where self-compassion and self-acceptance make it more possible to feel the same things towards everyone else. Happy drivers let someone else merge in from the side-road ahead of them; angry ones don’t. Happy people pay it forward.

Learning to accept kindness, from ourselves and from others, seems to be a lifetime’s work. This poem reminds me that I’m not alone in finding it hard, but that it is a worthwhile and wonderful thing to do.