The Journey

I’m still pondering the importance of paying attention, especially to joy. I think the reason Mary Oliver and Billy Collins are my two favorite living poets is probably their knack for paying close attention to things many of us miss so that we might see something we hadn’t seen before. Perhaps that’s the heart of all poetry, but Oliver and Collins seems to take special delight in noticing the most ordinary elements of life and finding something extraordinary.

Oliver seems particularly deft in discovering what I would call the grandeur of the everyday and has this uncanny ability to elicit the spiritual dimension of our material world without even thinking about it. In this poem, “The Journey,” Oliver invites us to imagine that each of us has a calling, a vocation, something that we just have to do. And while old associations, worries, and habits call out to us to stay just where we are in the comfortable and familiar, eventually we will break free, she assures us, and when we do we will discover not just what we were meant to do but also who we were called to be.

There is a danger in talking about vocation, though, and that is to imagine there is always something “grander” out there, just around the corner, suggesting that if we are not passionately moved by our present activities we are somehow falling short. Yet there is a beauty to fidelity as well, to doing your best where you are. I find that if I focus on the work in front of me, pouring what I have into this one present moment rather than straining toward the thousand possible but unknown ones ahead, the future takes care of itself.

The other challenge in talking about calling is that we often imagine it in rather singular terms. “I” may have a calling, but what about “we”? Can a family, a business, a congregation, a school similarly listen for its true voice calling it forward? I hope so, because in many ways I think that’s what I’m trying to do in this present role: keep this particular community company while it strides deeper into the world to do the only thing it can do.

Enough! Let Oliver’s simple wisdom – and don’t you think true wisdom is always simple? – prod you forward to summon your courage and start your journey.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, from Dream Work (1986).


PS: I’ve put below the one recording I could find of Mary Oliver reading this poem. It looks like she was tele-cast into Maria Schriver’s Women’s Conference in 2010.

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