april 7/RUN

2.3 miles
43rd ave, north/32nd st, east/river road trail, south/edmund, north
67 degrees

Managed to make it out for a run right before the steady rain started. Was able to run through the tunnel of trees, above the river. Noticed the beginning of green on the brown branches. It’s coming—the leaves, the veil, the obscured view, the warmer mornings, the deck, falling asleep in the red chair in the backyard, spring, summer, vaccines. Saw a stack of stones on the taller boulder at the edge of the trail, near the oak with the long reach. Turned around at 38th and headed north on Edmund. There, it was sunny; where I had just been, near 34th, it was gloomy and darkish blue, ominous. Such a strange, cool sight.

Did a lot of thinking and reading this morning. Here’s a sampling of what I encountered this morning:

And, I’m thinking about words like: inefficient, clockwork, pace (as in, “keep up the” or running pace or the hectic pace of modern life), mechanization, industrialization, useless, instrumental, accessible, smooth, easy, fast, relevant, order, discipline, attention economy, rest, restlessness, sleep, internal clocks, spending time vs. passing it, paying or giving attention, eyeballs on the page, obscure, unnoticed, unnoticing.

Lots of words and thoughts swirling in my head about work, labor, productivity. And about why Mary Oliver’s poems are so popular–how/why does she speak to so many, especially those who don’t normally “like” poetry? As I skimmed through her collection, Devotions, I started thinking about how so many of the poems talk directly to the reader, inviting them to attend to the beauty of the world, to notice the long black branches, or to chastise them, nudging them to do and be better:

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/of other lives?
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

Can you Imagine? Oh, do you have time? Come with me into the fields of sunflowers. What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? Surely you can’t imagine they just stand there looking the way they look when we’re looking?

Mary Oliver’s invitations, and even her admonishments, are seductive. Yes, I will notice! Yes, I will look and imagine and take the time! Her words inspire, making it seem attainable to be better, to change your life, to do more than merely breathe. Even as I have loved and admired her work since the first poem I read–was it “Invitation”?–I have also been wary of it. She makes it sound so simple–just change your life! Stop, take a break, notice those goldfinches!

I was bothered enough by this idea to write a poem about her poem “Invitation”, and then a chapbook about the phrase, “change your life” that features my poem which I titled, “You Must Change Your Life.” In my only workshop experience, for a great Advanced Poetry class at the Loft, the rest of my class didn’t seem to like “You Must Change Your Life”. Too wordy, too full of explanation, too much Oliver, not enough Rilke. So I put it away. But, reading it again now, I like it. It needs some cleaning up, but I’m proud of it and the questions I’m posing about will and attention, how we hear the call to notice things and change our lives, how we sustain that call.

Back then in 2018, I focused a lot on how change happens whether we want it or not and I explored different meanings and causes of change. Now, I’m interested in how we might choose to act on her invitation, how it becomes possible for us to “enter the long brown branches of other lives.” First, the easy answer: say yes, take up her invitation, decide to stop and smell the roses, watch those goldfinches and their musical battle, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk! But, don’t do this just once. Do it repeatedly–every month or week or morning. Make it a habit. Of course, making this into a habit isn’t necessarily easy; it requires effort and discipline and commitment, but it’s possible to believe, on any fresh day, that we can make this choice and change ourselves. This Yes! answer is the one that I imagine gets many readers excited about MO’s work and is why she’s so popular and important.

But, there’s another answer to the question of how we take up her invitation that is harder and more hidden, and that involves the difficult, messy work of saying no to many things in order to say Yes! to the goldfinches. And, this saying no is not simply choosing to not do this or that busy, important thing in order to notice the goldfinches. It is to refuse some of the fundamental (and toxic) values that shape who we are and what we should be doing in 21st century, late capitalism: work, always work, that is productive, useful, efficient, busy, fast, that makes lots of money for someone else, that yields status and success, that creates more things, that doesn’t waste time, that generates quantitative (not qualitative) results. Refusing these values is difficult and requires breaking habits we have been disciplined into following and practicing since elementary school. I describe this work of refusal as undisciplining yourself. And I’ve been working very hard at it for the last decade.

As far as I can tell, Mary Oliver rarely mentions this work, but it’s there, haunting every page. Each Yes! is tinged with the effort of the no that made it possible. (is this last sentence too much? maybe I’m getting carried away.) Anyway, I happened to remember one poem in which MO briefly describes her own undisciplining process:

Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer/ Mary Oliver

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught—

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.