On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.
Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.
Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.
Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:
My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.
One tree did precisely that for Ensler. She paints the backdrop of her lifelong resistance to the transformation to follow:
I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth. I aggrandized my alien identity and wore black and felt superior. My body was a burden. I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.
She recounts the curious, almost mystical effect of a particular tree outside her hospital room as she lay fighting for life after a monstrous cancer had ravaged her body:
What I hadn’t anticipated was the tree. I was too weak to think or write or call or even watch a movie. All I could do was stare at the tree, which was the only thing in my view. At first it annoyed me and I thought I would go mad from boredom. But after the first days and many hours, I began to see the tree.
On Tuesday I meditated on bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into tree.
The tree became an antidote to all the habitual ways in which we escape from ourselves — from the gentle aliveness of the world, both inner and outer — and launch into a deadening trot on the hedonic treadmill, placing our fragile sense of worth on doing rather than being. Ensler writes:
I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only in what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here. Life itself was inconsequential unless it led to something. Unless the tree would be wood, would be house, would be table, what value was there to tree? So to actually lie in my hospital bed and see tree, enter the tree, to find the green life inherent in tree, this was the awakening. Each morning I opened my eyes. I could not wait to focus on tree. I would let the tree take me. Each day it was different, based on the light or wind or rain. The tree was a tonic and a cure, a guru and a teaching.
She traces the origin of her arboreal antagonism:
“I never want to see another tree,” I said with bravado at twenty-two as I was speeding down a turnpike away from the green hills of Vermont toward Manhattan. I think I said “fucking tree.” I never want to see another fucking tree. It was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. I hated trees. They had come to mean small towns and small minds, isolation and gossip, long, freezing winters and endless, green, swallowing landscapes, skiing coeds and empty chatter, families and babies, marriage and life. Trees had everything to do with life. I drove that day out of the forests and hills and blue skies and nights of falling stars into concrete, after-hours joints, Mafia hit men, anonymous sex, anonymous despair, gin and bourbon, and an end to morning, let alone trees. I see now how much I wanted to die, or how much I did not want to live with the pain inside me.
A group therapist once said that if you want to understand your relationship to your mother, look at your relationship to groups, but I say, “Look at your relationship to the Earth.” The Earth was terrifying to me and separate, radically apart, foreign. I wanted it so much, I stopped wanting it.
This tree outside my room brought back other trees, trees I had seen without seeing, had loved without loving: the weeping willow at the bottom of my driveway in Scarsdale, madly shedding in the fall, making a shimmering bed of soft white lime leaves; the majestic pine trees in Croatia by the sea, filled with vociferous cicadas in late summer; the single tree in the middle of the Mara in Kenya, the lonely solitary tree that I first sat under with a beaded Masai mother who had stopped the practice of female genital mutilation on her daughter and kept playfully punching my arm with joy; the tree in Kabul, or I should say the stump of an ancient tree that had been cut down and burned by rebels, and the way the old, very wrinkled caretaker of the park cried when he talked about the hundred-year-old tree becoming firewood for some wild men for a few stupid nights.
The tree outside the hospital room window became an invitation to a special kind of silence — an opening to the third of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul.” Ensler recounts:
I had days of silence with my tree and my dear friend and Paris neighbor, MC, who came to stay with me in the hospital. She is Belgian and the quietest person I know. Her silence was new like the tree. At first it was disconcerting, then, over time, delicious. Her presence did not require me to do anything: not to explain or entertain or make sense. She did not ask for anything, and she did not invade the boundaries of my illness. There was a week of silence, of presence, of tree.
There was the tree. My tree. Not that I owned it. I had no desire for that. But it had come to be my friend, my point of connection and meditation, my new reason to live. I was not writing or producing or on the phone or making anything happen… I was not contributing much more than my appreciation of tree, my love of green, my commitment to trunk and bark, my celebration of branch, my insane delight over the gentle white May blossoms that were beginning to flower everywhere.
Ensler was eventually discharged from the hospital, but as chemo besieged her body, a complication returned her to that room and restrapped her to the IV bag. And then the tree performed its silent miracle:
I was back in the room with the tree. This time I felt lonely and sad, deeply sad. Some part of me didn’t want to cooperate or move forward.
The tree seemed to mock my self-pity. I was raging, I was totally exhausted by myself, exhausted by my desperate fear of vanishing into ordinary. I was at the end of my body’s road. Everything had stopped inside me, even tears. I passed out.
When I woke up my bag was full and life, it seemed, was coursing through me. The tree had worked its magic. What I didn’t know was that the tree was actually inside me and saving my life. It turns out that Taxol, one of my chemo chemicals, is found in the bark of the ancient yew tree. Even better, the Taxol is made from the needles of the tree, so the tree does not have to be destroyed. Taxol functions to stabilize the cell structure so solidly that killer cells cannot divide and multiply. It was a tree that was calming and protecting me, fortifying my cell structure so it was safe from attack.
I had finally found my mother.
In a characteristically excellent conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Ensler delves further into the details of how the devastating events and experiences of her life — childhood abuse, cancer, the horrific rape and violence she witnessed in the Congo — became her raw material for living:
When I was younger and went through so much violence, I separated myself from all the things that represented life because life was too painful. Beauty, nature, love, children — none of the things felt possible to me. I felt like I had been exiled from that world. And although I looked at it longingly from time to time, I also looked at it with bitterness and the kind of cynical bad-ass self which was, like, I’m on my way to the city and I’ll never see another tree again.
Every day, every hour, it was as if the tree began to reveal itself to me. Or I began to see the tree or both those things happened together. And I fell in love with that tree. I loved the bark, I loved the trunk, I loved the branches… It was just unbelievable. And by the end of my stay in the hospital, which was a few weeks, the tree actually blossomed these white blossoms and I felt like I was born back into nature somehow. Like I had been asleep, and I had awakened.
In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us.
Habit is a paradoxical thing — at once a human invention and a core feature of nature. (The driving force behind evolution, of course, is a kind of habit — for what else is adaptation if not the honing of habit for optimal survival?) Touching ever so gently on the enduring question of free will, Oliver captures this elegantly:
The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities — bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter — all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures.
But rather than limiting the flow of life in our human world, she suggests, habit becomes a stand-in for those natural rhythms and thus liberates our vitality:
What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.
For more of Oliver’s grace and genius, treat yourself to her remarkable On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — a rare glimpse into the inner world of a writer who has enriched the worlds of millions and yet has remained notoriously reclusive:
“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?”
By Maria Popova
Few are those whose contribution to humanity — be it art, or music, or literature, or some other enchantment — fills the heart with uncontainable gratitude for their very existence. Mary Oliver — one of the greatest poets of all time, and perhaps the greatest of our time — is one such blessing of a writer. She, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, has made a supreme art of bearing witness to our world — be it in her exquisite poems, or in the prose of that moving remembrance of her soul mate, or in her meditations on the craft of poetry itself.
In her immensely rewarding recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — triply magical because Oliver rarely gives interviews, and never ones this dimensional and revealing — she read several of her most beloved poems. While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.
Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.
THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.