757. With thanks to Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver, superlative poet and essayist, died this past week at the age of 83. I first started reading her work, particularly her essays, in mid-life when I was in graduate school. Reading her was like having a friend next to me, urging me on to pay attention, to pause, to look, to wonder, to praise. In Long Life: Essays and Other Writing, Oliver wrote:

“And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning, ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’"


When I heard that she had died, I took Long Life off my bookshelf and went through, re-reading the lines I’d starred and underlined.


Here are a few of the other lines my eyes landed on:

“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”


And this:

“I walk in the world to love it.”


And this:

"And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend." ( I had wanted to use this as an epigraph for Finding Livelihood but due to permission issue I had to cut it.)


This morning, here in Minneapolis, the sky is blue and sunny, the air cold. New snow, not much, is glistening white. Although the thermometer reads –1°, it is all so beautiful. Oliver wrote, “There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.”

May you divine much beauty, live the life yours to live, think thoughts and aim high, walk and love. I thank Mary Oliver for writing and sharing her deeply meaningful words. If you have some words of Oliver’s to share, I’d love to read them in the comments.

~

I’m experimenting with providing an audio version of my posts. Let me know what you think!

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To read other posts I’ve written about Mary Oliver, click here.

[Photo: taken of a painting viewed at the Minnesota Museum of American Art: “March Idyll or Winter Landscape, Woodstock” by John Fabian Carlson; used with permission. I love that crack in the sky in the upper left corner that tells you the sun is about to break through. I think Mary Oliver would also have loved it.)

661. Pregnancy loss and infertility: new anthology provides companionship for lonely grief

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Tuesday was the release day for a new anthology from Kalos Press and edited by Jessica Snell: NOT ALONE: A Literary and Spiritual Companion for Those Confronted with Infertility and Miscarriage. I am grateful to have an essay in this beautiful collection, not only because it's a way to have a part in something that will help so many other women and men, but also because this collection is evidence that good can come from grief.

I lost a baby girl exactly midway through a pregnancy 24 years ago. Depending on which definition you use, it could be called a miscarriage or it could be called intrauterine fetal death. The later is the term they used when it happened to me. One of the things I learned in the weeks and months following that loss is that this particular grief is a lonely one. People around me had never met the one who was missing. Yet I knew her, body to body, body in body. My husband and I had a hole in our family, whereas to other people our family looked the same as it ever did. That's not to say that people around me didn't show compassion and sympathy. They did. I was surrounded by wonderful and caring family and friends. A wonderful and caring church. But there is a unique aloneness about this grief that is hard to explain.

About 12 years later, I gave a talk at my church on the text of Isaiah 49 in which the question is posed: Does a mother forget her nursing baby or the child she has borne? Even if that were remotely possible, said the Lord through Isaiah, "I will not forget you." Here's a little from my talk:

I loved my daughter from the minute I knew of her. I love her still. Yet that love has never been reciprocated by the coos or hugs of a loving growing little girl. My consciousness of her is not a vision of her adorableness or memories of the things she said or did. She existed—that was all. But that brief encounter with her existence was sufficient to make me remember her forever. I think of her more often that I can say. Thoughts of a baby I never held or knew still bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

After we lost her, we were gifted with a large number of cards of condolences. Quite a few contained mention of a baby the sender had lost and still remembered with grief. Or women, some from this church, came up to me and recalled a baby they had lost or hadn’t had for long—sometimes stories 40 or more years old--yet the stories were usually told with a catch in the voice.

My experience is that mothers don’t forget their babies—those they can see grow up and those they can’t. Mothers don’t forget. This is a concrete reminder of the fact that God doesn’t forget us either. Whether or not we feel as if we’re adorable to God, whether or not we think we’ve put in adequate “face time” with God, whether or not we’ve returned his love adequately, we exist and he made us and that is sufficient for his eternal remembrance of us.

Note the part about the women who told me stories 40 or more years old about their pregnancy losses. After that talk, more women – young and old – came up to me and told me stories of pregnancy loss in choked, hushed voices as if they shouldn't still be thinking about it. It's a lonely grief.

Having two sons, I can only imagine infertility, the other topic of the anthology, to be an enormous, lonely grief of additional and complex dimensions.

My short essay in this anthology, "Ontology," was first published in the journal Harpur Palate about 5 years ago and later reprinted in the anthology Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska Gender Studies). For years I had known I would eventually write about this and had made a few failed attempts. Then one evening, late after watching a movie, I came into my office to turn out the light, and as I did, this essay started pouring out. I took a piece of paper from my desk and wrote it all out in one stream. The next day I made a few edits and there it was. My tribute to my daughter, to the lonely and abiding grief, to the hope of someday knowing her face to face, to the mystery of God's grace in dark places.

Kalos Press is offering a gift of companionship in this anthology to those who are feeling alone in grief. From the publisher:

"No experience of miscarriage, infant loss, or infertility is like any other, yet by reading these painful and hope-filled stories, you’ll be comforted by knowing there are others who understand the journey you’re on, the loss you’ve suffered, and you will find that even though your loss is uniquely yours, you are not alone."

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If you or someone you know needs companionship on the journey of pregnancy loss or infertility, consider this book - available through Kalos Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Talking about work - a review, a podcast, and readers stories

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In the Prologue to Finding Livelihood, I wrote, “I wrote this book looking out from where I sit at my own work desk, but this book is not about me. Let the word and images spin you off into meditations of your own experiences of work.” I’m delighted to see that this is what is really happening among its readers. I’m hearing back stories of first jobs and job searches, memories of strikes and layoffs, concerns about now and future career decisions.

Today over at Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership website, Allison Backous Troy writes about Finding Livelihood within the context of her own search for meaningful work and her friend’s search for work that “didn’t kill her soul.” She reflects on her parents work and the bar tips her father used to buy groceries, even as he reminded Allison to be sure and follow her dreams when she grew up.

In "Livelihood and the path between vocation and work," Allison writes,

"After my college graduation, I thought "following my dreams" meant standing in front of a classroom on the South Side of Chicago. Then I thought it meant standing in a college classroom, teaching writing. Then I got married and moved cross-country and had a baby. But when my job fell through and my husband and I both scrambled to find work, my father's advice became a luxury I could not afford. The gap between our mounting bills and our dwindling savings became more pressing than following the confusing trail of my dreams."

She continues,

"'I yearn,' writes Nordenson, 'for the inner equipping of freedom and play, time for my soul to lift and expand to all that there is, even while on the path of work. I want a place at the table where data meets humanity. I want to sing while collecting my pay.'

This is also what we want -- the place at the table, the song and the pay. The recognition not only that we have worth but that life beckons to us at the edges of our working days, our gladness and the world's hunger rooted in a longing for what Nordenson calls "the integrated transcendent life." Not a transcendence that can be discovered in self-help books or watered-down spirituality, but one that recognizes, like Irenaeus, that 'the glory of God is man fully alive.'"

I hope you’ll read more from Allison’s reflection on my book and her own work life here at Duke’s Faith & Leadership site. Allison is a beautiful writer and frequent contributor there, so click on her name to read more of her columns.

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In other book news, a podcast I recorded several weeks ago is now live at Anglican Review. Michael Porter interviewed me about the book and asked several interesting questions, including one I’d never been asked before. I hope you’ll take a listen.

I also hope you scan the other interviews available on the podcast’s site. Porter interviews authors, theologians, philosophers, and others, and has an international listening audience.

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[Photo: taken of geraniums resurrected after a winter in the basement; they got a slow start but now they're on their way.]