It’s been a while, friends, and in my own tiny corner there have been some big changes. I’ve moved from downtown Toronto to North York. I’ve been occupied with the stress of a child with a scary mystery illness— still a nagging concern, but thankfully he has been healthy since our hospital visit. On top of these challenges, with suffering so acute in the world, I find it difficult to admit that I’ve been feeling low this past while. Despite my enormous good fortune, I have gone through a period of wanting to disengage and distance from the details of my everyday life. In an attempt to restore a sense of peace within uncertainty, I’ve been guided by the words of poet Mary Oliver: “Attention leads to devotion.” If I’m honest, almost everything I’m thinking about these days circles back to this wise woman with a moving reverence for the natural world.
Like Oliver, I’ve started going for solo walks every morning, exploring the forests that snake around the sprawling Bathurst and Sheppard subdivisions. As she predicted, my attention to these wild places has led to a budding loyalty— not just to the neighbourhood, but to the creature that I am when I stop trying to be anything at all. On the days when I am kept away, I find myself daydreaming about the convivial indifference of those marshes and pine stands and geese gaggles. It is a place where I am comfortingly insignificant, welcome but unessential, free, for a time, to be nothing but ‘idle and blessed’.
If we are never idle, when do we humbly acknowledge and accept the gifts that we haven't worked for at all?
This phrase from Oliver, ‘idle and blessed’, runs through my mind often these days. The word idle can have negative connotations in our culture; it is easy to believe that we are only as worthy as our best efforts to be more and that anything less is lazy. But if we are are never idle, when do we humbly acknowledge and accept the gifts that we haven’t worked for at all? Is all this busyness just arrogance, an assumption that only our human accomplishments are worthy of attention? When do we simply celebrate being alive in a world that is teeming with things that are not only good enough but downright miraculous? Personally, I’ve spent too much time waiting for the perfect circumstances so now I’m aiming for every day. More often than not, I’m finding that peace is only an attentive pause away, just waiting for me to notice it, to inhabit it, like a sunbeam on an empty bench.
Excerpt from The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
P.S. I find it interesting that the last lines of this poem are often taken out of context and used to encourage people to achieve more. However, within their home in the poem these lines seem to be saying that just appreciating life is a very worthy use of our time on earth.
Oliver was known for writing poetry on her daily walks because she disliked the confinement of indoor spaces. The other day I decided to try this, taking a tiny pocket sized notebook with me and pausing to record some snail happenings. I found that having the intention to stop and dedicate even a very short time to writing deepened my appreciation for the tiny details. It was also interesting to notice how much I wanted to take photos instead, and how the emotional energy of writing down observations differs so much from photo taking. Give it a try and let me know how it goes! Bonus points if you do it on a bench in a sunbeam.