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The Unbusy Life

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“I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.”
—Mary Oliver

When Mary Oliver died last month, I felt I had lost a kindred spirit from this world. Someone who lived a life of deep connection to, and quiet contemplation of, nature’s never-ending miracles. All my life I have been drawn to quiet contemplative moments more than busy social activities. Even as a child, although I loved playing with my friends at school, something in me craved the experiences I had in my own backyard alone with nature.

I grew up an only child on five acres in the Illinois countryside, and I always felt most content outdoors by myself, sometimes reading in the branches of my favorite climbing tree, sometimes sitting in the grass watching ants or birds or clouds in the sky. Mother Nature nurtured my sense of the beautiful and miraculous in the world. In truth, this was my first experience of God. Beyond religious parameters and beyond words. In the silent language of the natural world, I found my spiritual home. And it has never left me.

In my adult life, when I worked at various editorial jobs and became active in feminist groups, I needed time alone in order to feel restored and whole. I took long walks in parks and nature sanctuaries and went on hiking trips to immerse myself in the natural world. And I wrote poetry and prose that arose from that silent inner space. The poet in me was always craving times of quietude and peace. To just be instead of do.

Through the years, I have found those moments of just being absolutely essential and nonnegotiable. They are the deepest form of life enhancement and spiritual connection for me. My sacred temple is nature. My form of prayer is standing with my “arms open,” contemplating the cosmos, in a grain of sand or in a galaxy. Mary Oliver always spoke to my heart when she wrote of her solitary and transcendent experiences in nature. To me, she epitomized being supremely engaged with all aspects of life as she observed the world around her with a loving poet’s eye:

“Do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you
as you stand there,
empty-handed…
or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?”

Mary knew the truth of life, what was really meaningful, not superficially so. Her writing, which came from her heart, touched readers’ souls, and many other hearts were awakened through the beauty of her poetry and prose. When I reread her work, I am always uplifted, always validated in my desire to connect deeply with nature on a daily basis, for my need to regularly step away from activities I love to be “not busy.” To hold within me a holy space where I can just “love this world/as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get/to be alive/and know it.” Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the gift of your voice and your presence on this Earth.
____________________
In memory of Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

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