In praise of the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.”
By Maria Popova
For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.
But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.
Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.
I KNOW SOMEONE
I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.
Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.
I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY
I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.
But, bless us, we didn’t.
HOW DO I LOVE YOU?
How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by
like this and
no more words now
NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS
Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.
But nowhere do the beauty, mystery, and soul-sustenance of friendship come more vibrantly alive than in the 1997 masterwork Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (public library) by the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), titled after the Gaelic for “soul-friend” — a beautiful concept that elegantly encapsulates what Aristotle and Emerson and Lewis articulated in many more words.
O’Donohue examines the essence and origin of the term:
In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.
The kind of friendship one finds in an anam cara, O’Donohue argues, is a very special form of love — not the kind that leads us to pit the platonic against the romantic but something much larger and more transcendent:
In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.
But being an anam cara requires of a purposeful presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity of intention. That interior intentionality, O’Donohue suggests, is what sets the true anam cara apart from the acquaintance or the casual friend — a distinction all the more important today, in a culture where we throw the word “friend” around all too hastily, designating little more than perfunctory affiliation. But this faculty of showing up must be an active presence rather than a mere abstraction — the person who declares herself a friend but shirks when the other’s soul most needs seeing is not an anam cara.
The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion… You look and see and understand differently. Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.
The anam cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.
O’Donohue borrows Aristotle’s notion of friendship and stretches it to a more expansive understanding:
A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.
The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.
Anam Cara is a soul-stretching read in its entirety, exploring such immutable human concerns as love, work, aging, and death through the timeless lens of ancient Celtic wisdom. Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then treat yourself to O’Donohue’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — one of the last interviews he gave before his sudden and tragic death.
If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us … we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential… It’s one of the lonelinesses of humans that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and … you only realize what you have when you’re almost about to lose it.
Elizabeth Alexander is among the most entrancing and spiritually invigorating poets of our time, and only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration. Her recent memoir, The Light of the World, is one of the most breathtaking books on loss ever written. In her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Alexander reads the poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — perhaps the most beautiful meditation on poetry’s role in human life ever committed to words — found in her indispensable collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).
ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
“To understand the Dalai Lama … perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.”
By Maria Popova
I think a great deal about the difference between routine and ritual as a special case of our more general and generally trying quest for balance — ripped asunder by the contrary longings for control and whimsy, we routinize daily life in order to make its inherent chaos more manageable, then ritualize it in order to imbue its mundanity with magic, which by definition violates the predictable laws of the universe. I suspect that our voracious appetite for the daily routines of cultural icons is fueled by a deep yearning to glean some insight on and practical help with this impossible balancing act, from people who seem to have mastered it well enough to lead happy, productive, creatively fruitful, and altogether remarkable lives.
Perhaps the most unexpected yet brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium is the Dalai Lama.
[By] nine a.m. … the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.
Compressed into this humble and humbling morning routine is the entire Buddhist belief that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” This daily rite of body and spirit is the building block of the Dalai Lama’s quiet and steadfast mission to, as Iyer elegantly puts it, “explore the world closely, so as to make out its laws, and then to see what can and cannot be done within those laws.” He writes:
To understand the Dalai Lama … especially if (as in my case) you come from some other tradition, perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.
As someone deeply invested in the crucial difference between information and wisdom, I was particularly fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s information diet — that is, what daily facts he chooses to fuse with ancient wisdom in his dedication to unraveling the nature of reality and making use of it in fortifying the soul. Iyer writes:
As a longtime student of real life, ruler of his people before the age of five, he listens every morning to the Voice of America, to the BBC East Asian broadcast, to the BBC World Service — even while meditating — and devours Time and Newsweek and many other news sources (I think of how the Buddha is often depicted with one hand touching the earth, in what Buddhists call the “witnessing the earth” gesture).
And yet the Dalai Lama approaches his information diet like he does his meditation — as a deliberate practice. In that sense, “meaning diet” is far more accurate a term, for he is remarkably deliberate about which aspects of the Information Age to fold into his meaning-making mission and which to sidestep. He chooses, for instance, to avoid one of the most perilous byproducts of our era, which Susan Sontag presaged in 1977 in her famous admonition against “aesthetic consumerism.” Iyer writes:
In the Age of the Image, when screens are so much our rulers, anyone who wishes to grab our attention — and to hold it — does so by converting himself into a “human-interest story,” translating his life into a kind of fable…. Those who long to be entrusted with real consequences in our lives acquire that power increasingly by presenting themselves as fairy tales.
The Dalai Lama, by nature and training, is in the odd position of trying to do the opposite: he comes to us to tell us that he is real, as real as his country, bleeding and oppressed, and that he lives in a world far more complex than a two-year-old’s cries of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese” (the Dalai Lama would more likely say, “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”).
Indeed, contacting this interconnectedness of all beings and all lives is the very impetus for the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet — a beautiful assurance that beneath our obsession with routine and ritual lies a deeper, more expansive longing for meaning, for orienting ourselves in this vibrating universe of interconnectedness that we call reality.
Iyer articulates this elegantly:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a body (not difficult to do, since in part that is what you are). You have eyes, ears, legs, hands, and, if you are lucky, all of them are in good working order. You never, if you are sane, think of your finger as an independent entity (though you may occasionally say, “My toe seems to have a mind of its own”). You are never, in your right mind, moved to hit your own foot, let alone sever it; the only loser in such an exercise would be yourself.
This is all simplistic to the point of self-evidence. But when the Buddhist speaks of “interdependence” (the central Buddhist concept of shunyata, often rendered as “emptiness,” the Dalai Lama has translated as “empty of independent identity”), all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of “I” and “you,” of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It’s almost absurd to say you wish to get ahead of your colleague — it’s like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is famous for his laughter, the sudden eruption of almost helpless giggles or a high-pitched shaking of the body. Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious… Talking about friends and enemies is a little like holding on to this hair on your arm and claiming it as a friend, because you see it daily, and calling the hair on your back an enemy, because you never see it at all. Talking of how you are a Buddhist and therefore opposed to the Judeo-Christian teaching is like solemnly asserting that your right nostril is the source of everything good, and your left nostril a place of evil. The doctrine of “universal responsibility” is not only universal but obvious: it’s like saying that every part of us longs for our legs, our eyes, our lungs to be healthy. If one part suffers, we all do.
Buddhists do not (or need not) seek solutions from outside themselves, but merely awakening within; the minute we come to see that our destinies or well-being are all mutually dependent, they say, the rest naturally follows (meditation sometimes seems the way we come to this perception, reasoning the way we consolidate it). If you believe this, human life offers you many more belly laughs daily, as the Dalai Lama exemplifies.
And there, with a good-humored smirk, Iyer reminds us that his perspective isn’t perched on a holier-than-thou branch in the tree of life but grounded in his reality as a Westerner and a writer, and thus a creature of ego trying to learn the very lesson he is channeling:
Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well-being as your thumb is?