I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
("I Go Down to the Shore," by Mary Oliver, in A Thousand Mornings)
The economy of a poem is its virtue. Every word of a well-crafted one must count so much that the acres of blank space on the page pour out meaning as well, rich in its absence of words. At least it does with Mary Oliver's poems, poems which are deceptively simple yet profound.
So she goes down to the shore. So do we all. This is not a going just to walk, to gaze on beauty, to enjoy the sea air. She is going to the edge and staring out into Creation with questions: Why? What now?
And so I have been down to the shore, the edge of the city, to a forest in the early morning, alone. Last year, in April, I went to a nearby state park alone on several mornings in the space of several months. These were not nature walks, in the sense that I was there to observe the forest, the river, the bird life and fauna. I was there to be alone and hear and see the regularity, the mundanity of a rock and stream and forest that pre-existed me and will live on after me, that will keep on. My mother was dying. I walked a long sentence, stretching out the length of the path, a sentence saying what shall --- what should I do? And the ancient river and stones and trees said, as they always say, Excuse me, I have work to do.
In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris reminds us that the "divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life," that "it is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is 'renewed in the morning'" (Ps. 90:5). And so I walk. I do the mundane work of putting one foot in front of another even when that is all I can do. I dig a path with my question. Some questions have to be taken out and walked, given space in which to percolate. The rhythm of footsteps, like the beat of my heart, answers my restlessness. What should I do?
Some have said that poetic meter --- even the common iambic pentameter of so many poems and songs --- originates in the bodily rhythm of arms and legs in motion. Even more, in the beat of our own hearts. So when we walk, we hear music, we make music, reconnect with the song at the heart of Creation. We consider the barely perceptible rhythms of a natural world whose work is excruciatingly slow: trees inch upward; maples and sweet gums shed their leaves reluctantly, oaks resist; rocks are sculpted ever so gently by wind and water and their ceaseless caress. Excuse me, I have work to do, they say.
In the end, when I go down to the shore, when I step out on the earth and walk, I am reminded of the God who made me, of Christ who holds all things together, of the Spirit who works unceasingly, who stirs my heart to worship. Walking becomes liturgy, a regular path to praise. My breath, my heart, my stride, my motion --- they all remind me of my creatureliness, and that of my Creator whose image I bear. And then, like today, something enters that rhythm, that mundanity of my existence --- a dog, smiling, approaches; a gargantuan leaf flutters down and catches in my wife's unsuspecting hand, as if God placed it there; a lone white birch tree sways slightly against a sharp blue sky (look up, it says); the gnarled roots of a what seems a prehistoric tree clutch the river bank; leaves crunch underfoot, announcing our coming. Skipping rocks in the riverbed, I accidently plunge my foot, boot and all, under water. I laugh. What shall --- what should I do?
It is God who answers: Excuse me, I have work to do.
As do I.