(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)
All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?
Not now, I say.
My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”
Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.
“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.
Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.
Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.
As Oliver concluded,
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.
That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.
[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]