Mary Oliver, celebrated poet, passed away this month at 83 years old. She wrote and reflected on nature, goodness, God, beauty and more. She had a gift in helping us stand in amazement of a world that we often overlook. She pointed to geese and early mornings, she was enraptured with small things and trees. Her poems were not a gushing flourish so much as a quiet awe. She loved this world and all that shared life with her in it.
We need poets and prophets, artists and dreamers to remind us that our lives are made up of so much more than a stream of emails, car payments, and trips to Costco. While these are important, we are more than what we can get done in a day. Or as Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” We need to be reminded that the life we have is glorious and worth stopping and taking delight in it.
Mary Oliver wrote a few words on one poem that continue to resonate with me. She wrote: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Living well might not always be about doing more, but standing with a new posture towards what already is. What does it look like for us, in our neighbourhoods, to pay attention. To see our friends, family, kids, and community with curiosity. I have learned that paying attention often requires that I slow down, embrace moments of boredom, and make space for others.
When we do, we open the possibility for astonishment. Awe and surprise are gifts that we cannot conjure, we can only discover them already present in our midst. It is astonishing to me, for example, that I have one life to live, a handful of years to love and be loved, and a community of people who help me see myself and God with newfound hope. I stand in astonishment of mountains and sunsets, but I also stand in awe of babies, friends, and family. There is inherent good to be celebrated all around us, if we allow ourselves to be astonished by it all.
As a parent I am learning from my girls about this. When my daughter first learned to whistle, she was giddy and proud of herself and this new musical skill, but then she had to tell everyone. In the lineup at the grocery store, at church, at the bank, or in the park she was alerting everyone to this amazing thing called ‘whistling.’ Who can resist smiling at that?
When we let others know about something beautiful we found, we share the joy of the discovery. Telling about what we see is a posture of generosity. We share what is good with others and it does not take away from our enjoyment of it, but rather multiplies the wonder.
What does it look like for you to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it? How would a community of people be transformed by living out Mary Oliver’s ‘Instructions for living a life?’ May you be surprised and in the telling of it, may you find new hope and life anew.