Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reaching out for the Things I Can't Reach

Where Does the Temple End, Where Does It Begin?
by Mary Oliver

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

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.

And thinking; maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

[Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 8 – 9.]

This Mary Oliver poem found me last week as I spent a day on retreat. I've stayed with it in the days since and it keeps speaking into my life. There are images that strike me in the poem, but I really haven't moved beyond the first two lines yet.

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The poem came to me in a season in which I have some uncertainty about what the future holds. I have a sense of interior unsettledness about the days ahead, and it has threatened to shut me down. I'm tending to feel myself withdrawing, pulling into myself, to keep from getting too far outside of myself. In my honest, self-reflective moments, I realize that my vision has gotten small and narrow. My capacity to dream is constricting.

I was drawn to these words in the poem, though, and for days brought them into my prayer. I considered the things in my life I was invited to reach out for, even if I would never reach them. I felt invited to continue extending myself outward, reaching out, not contingent on whether I would reach the end or not.

My reflections were fruitful. I wrote some poetry around the ideas that arose in me. I worked with the image artistically.

A few days into the poem, someone asked me about my health. I recited the most recent medical report. Then this person asked, "What are your dreams? What are you stretching toward?" Even though I had been working with this poem, I gave some lame, health-based answer about not being able to look very far ahead, not feeling like I was in a place to dream any longer. This wise friend said, "So what? Do you think you should let that stop you from dreaming?" I realized she was right.

Over a decade ago, one of the poems that drew me into poetry, and specifically to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, was a poem in his Book of Hours in which he said, "I live my life in expanding orbits . . . I don't know that I shall reach the last, but that is my aim." Rilke and Mary Oliver are talking about the same thing.

To live life in expanding orbits . . . whether I ever come to the last or not. . . .

There are things I cannot reach . . . but I will reach out to them.

1 comment:

Kathryn Kelley said...

Not to be safe

I step to the edge of change and wavier there until my own demons pull me back. No. I choose to follow them back. I give myself over. Change is screaming to me and I know it is what I need, what I want. What I CRAVE!

Simultaneously, the lure of safe sameness calls to me, beckoning me back from the edge, yet I find that my toes curl tightly to this edge. I am stretched, torn, yet, I am not returning to the safe sameness! I will process the fear, redirect it. I am not beating my head on the same wall, or at least it looks different, feels different?

What is not different are the demons. They are not new. Every time I step into/toward change, they approach me­—steal my thoughts, riveting them on old fears. I require, demand, to push through, not to give in, NOT TO BE SAFE.

I have chosen not to dream, but now they break over me in a rushing onslaught. Not the dream of sleep have I fled, but the dream of future-casting. And now I taste the dream rolling across the back of my tongue and it scares the hell out of me!

message today that correlates with your blog post here reminds of something i wrote a few years back.

i still get pulled back into not dreaming via some kind of numbing behavior (tv, fb, moping, etc), but when i take even slight steps towards doing simple tasks or parts of tasks as i feel called, the dreams or flickers of vision resurface.

for me not dreaming has always been safe. i couldn't be disappointed, if i didn't dream. not being disappointed once seemed important in keeping me safe. it no longer functions for me.

so even the slightest forward task restores a presences of quiet joy to me because at least i know i am open to the possibility if god opens the door.