A Conversation with Mary and Tomas



Hello my friends,

Welcome back from our long, steamy, delicious summer.  All through those dizzy, humid nights, longing for the least breeze, I thought – I can’t wait for fall.  But now that fall is here, I am mourning the loss of summer. Ah, human nature, so very fickle!

I know this is a cliche, but the best part of living in New England is the push and pull through the seasons, the yin and yang of it.  Pema Chodron asks us to become comfortable with uncertainty, and what better practice than the travel through the changes in our own back yards?  Perhaps New Englanders will be better prepared to adapt to climate change.

And yet, how we crave certainty.  We want to know what happens next, we want to be sure of our path.  We want answers to our questions. I think something many of us struggle with is the uncertainty of prayer.  How difficult it is to ask questions and not hear answers! Or to hear answers, but doubt that we have heard? Rilke asks us to recognize that answers will elude us, and instead learn to live the questions.  Neruda offers us “The Book of Questions” filled with 316 unanswerable questions. Here is one: “If the color yellow runs out / with what will we make bread?”

But what, I hear you asking, is Mary Oliver’s take on this?  I’m so glad you asked.

In her own words (“Luke“, from Red Bird), she says:

I had a dog
 who loved flowers.
     Briskly she went
        through the fields,

 yet paused
    for the honeysuckle
       or the rose,
          her dark head

    and her wet nose
          the face
             of every one

 with its petals
    of silk
       with its fragrance

 into the air
    where the bees,
        their bodies
           heavy with pollen,

hovered —
   and easily
      she adored
         every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
     that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom —

 the way we praise or don’t praise —
    the way we love
       or don’t love —
          but the way

    we long to be —
       that happy
          in the heaven of earth —
             that wild, that loving.

In Mary’s own journey, she has traveled in recent years into a certainty of faith, but in this poem I see reflected my own unmet longing – the admiration for the other, one who feels certainty, while knowing no such certainty herself.  Myself.

Perhaps some of you feel that certainty.  I try, but it wafts in and out like the cool breezes of late summer (exceedingly rare).  I’ve hoped to share my faith in a goddess with my daughter but she says with stern logic – “if you don’t feel a god, why do you feel a goddess?  How is that any different?” I worried that I”d let her down, but then reading one day I came across these words, sparklers in my mind,

“… and I wake to that unshakable PERHAPS that carries me through the wavering world”.

Yes!  That’s where I live.  It’s okay to live here.  You don’t have to come down on one side or the other.  You can pass your days in the box with Schrodinger’s cat, where the atom has both decayed and not decayed, the poison has both released and not released, the cat has not yet gone forth to meet her fate, and all things are still possible.

Who, I hear you asking, said that?  Who lit the sparklers? Tomas Transtromer, of course.  Tomas who?

This year, we are going to explore the intersection of our old friend Mary Oliver’s poetry with that of my new friend Tomas Transtromer.  He was an atmospheric and moody 20th century Swedish poet who won the Nobel Prize in 2011. Welcome to our new adventure.

Excerpted from Brief Pause in the Organ Recital, from The Wild Market Square, trans. Robin Fulton

I relive a dream.  That I’m standing alone in a
          churchyard.  Everywhere heather glows
as far as the eye can reach.  Who am I waiting for?
          A friend.  Why doesn’t he come.  He’s here

Slowly death turns up the lights from underneath,
          from the ground.  The heath shines, a
          stronger and stronger purple —
no, a color no one has seen … until the morning’s
          pale light whines in through the eyelids

and I wake to that unshakable PERHAPS that
          carries me through the wavering world.
And each abstract picture of the world is as
          impossible as the blueprint of a storm.