Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

Wee Magics and the Most Potent Magic

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Living a fairy life is a little tricky. Unless you work in a forest or art studio, wearing wings and glitter is probably not feasible, and answering your boss in chirps, bubbles, or ocarina melodies isn’t particularly conducive to an efficient workplace (even if your full time job is at a ren faire). So you have to find magic in smaller, less obtrusive places.

I like to find magic in nature. Walking on the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds, particularly in the Magic Garden, yields moments of magic every time, if I’m open to it.

This morning, an enormous dragonfly crossed my path, a fat bumblebee was pollinating trumpet vines, and sunlight dappled on little purple blossoms and stone benches. A little garter snake fled from me in the tall grass.

When I walked this morning, I didn’t put my ear buds in, so that I could listen to the birds. When I passed New Market Arbor, I inhaled a sweet smell of flowering vines.

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Really, little doses of magic can be found anywhere, if I’m looking: a tiny, tiny feather on the ground, a broken but beautiful dragon fly wing in my drought devastated back yard, wind chimes outside my bedroom window, my dachsund’s tummy. All of those things bring me joy and remind me of the magic that’s in the world.

I think I can also find magic in other, unexpected places: books, music, laughter with people I love, delicious food, wine, and shortbread cookies.

Honestly, though, I think the best place for me to find magic is also the place I tend most to overlook. It’s in my sweet husband’s love for me. After thirty years together, twenty eight of them married, we are pretty comfortable with each other. It’s easy to glance past each other, to listen with half an ear to one another’s opinions, predictions, worries, and dreams. We think we have heard it before. And often we have. But there is nothing more magical than being completely and wholly loved by another, and taking the time to hold hands and really look into that love’s eyes.

Yesterday, I watched a video that is circulating on Facebook. A man in his nineties sings “You’ll Never Know” to his wife, who lay dying in a hospital bed. Their love language transcended deafness, feeble vocals, and poor eyesight. The room was rich and redolent with love as magical as any fairy dust, as any rainbow.

Photo by Tanya Tarvin
Photo by Tanya Tarvin

Love is magic. It’s the best magic. Whether romantic, familial, or platonic, love scatters bits of enchantment wherever it is present.

Many call this “God.” I do believe love is Divine. It is a gift from the One who loves us and hopes that we will share that love.

Look for magic today. Love someone who needs it. Care for the earth. Rescue an animal. Hug a child or elderly person. Watch a sunset. Be thankful. Namaste.

Five Things Tinker Bell Taught Me

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Tinker Bell is sort of the Paris Hilton of fairies. She’s blonde, pretty much everyone has heard of her, and she can act a bit bratty sometimes.

According to her creator, J.M. Barrie, Tinker Bell is “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to EMBONPOINT [a plump hourglass figure].”

Though her voice is the tinkling of bells, she speaks with salty language, calling Peter a “silly ass” when he suggests she be Wendy’s fairy, since he is a boy and can’t have a fairy, and tries to have Wendy assassinated upon entrance to Neverland, telling the Lost Boys to shoot the “Wendy Bird” on Pan’s instructions. When it counts, though, she drinks poison to save Peter from death. She is complex and common, a mender of pots and pans in Neverland.

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I adore her. I adore her in her spoiled diva-ness, her single-minded purpose to be the center of Peter’s world, no matter the tactics required to get there. I adore her little puffy Disney shoes and her leaf green short dress.

Tink may arguably be the most popular of all Disney females. I know she hasn’t infiltrated the airwaves with a song like Elsa’s “Let It Go,” but she is now the central character of the entire Disney Fairies franchise, she flies over Aurora’s and Cinderella’s castles every night during the Disney fireworks, she even has a 5 1/2 inch replica at Madame Tussaud’s. She flies over the opening credits in Disney films, sprinkling magic over the logo, and her star was the celebratory star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame 50th anniversary. Tink is legit. I mean, Reese Witherspoon is going to be playing her in a live action film- an Oscar winning actress as Tinker Bell! You can’t get more legit than that!

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My daughters and I recently met Tink at her home in Pixie Hollow in Disneyland. There were several cute fairies to be found in Pixie Hollow, along with some very cute scenery. But when we got to Tink, we were like little girls! She was petite and perfect, right down to the puffs on her slippers. Our favorite Tink, however, is angry Tink. We like her saucy and belligerent. This Tinker Bell was so sweet, dainty, and smiling. We asked her if she would mind doing a photo (of course she wouldn’t, that’s what she’s there for), but we asked if she would please do the angry Tink face. She told us she really wasn’t supposed to, that she was to be kind and polite at all times or she’d get in trouble with Peter. But after a quick glance to make sure there were no little ones waiting behind us, she crossed her arms and made a perfect pout.

Tinker Bell, common or not, is a fairy who knows what she wants: Peter’s affection and to be the baddest fairy on the block (or Hollow or island).

As I have stated before in my blog, I didn’t come into my love for all things fairy until I was an adult. I didn’t see Disney’s film of Peter Pan until I was in my late twenties, so my love for Tinker Bell comes from a grown up place. Here are a few things I have learned from Tinker Bell:

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1. Have a marketable skill, but look wonderful while doing it! In the Victorian England of Tinks’ creation, a girl might need a job, a way to pay the rent on one’s tiny treehouse. Tinker Bell is a tinker- she mends pots and pans! But she looks beautiful while doing it, she is, after all, wearing a “skeleton leaf.” I have not quite mastered the art of looking fabulous while I work, I am usually in some dowdy pair of capris and flats, with my hair dangling without style. If I could wear wings to work, that would change instantly.

2. Puffs on shoes are always appropros. When I was in junior high and roller skating rinks were all the rage, I saved my pennies for a set of yellow puffs to tie on my skates, they pretty much looked just like Tinker Bell’s shoes in the painting at right. Though they didn’t glow, they made me feel quite invincible on the wood floor, enough that I would teach myself to skate backwards. But not, however, enough that I would work up the courage to ask Rob P. for a couples skate.

3. Being clapped for always makes you feel better. After she has drunk Peter’s poisoned medicine to prevent him from swallowing it and dying, Peter calls on all the children who believe, if they can hear him from Neverland, to clap to resurrect her. The applause enlivens Tinker Bell so that she can be resurrected and go with Peter to fight Captain Hook. I like applause, too. I love coming our for a curtain call and being lauded. And clapping doesn’t have to be literal- a friend or coworker can notice something you did well, a spouse can remind you why he chose you, a child can wrap her arms around your knees, telling you “you’re the best mommy in the world.” Applause comes in many forms, and it makes us feel better.

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4. Sometimes inappropriate language gets the point across best. When I was a little girl, my mother would not allow the use of the words “fart,” “butt,” or “crap.” Or, for that matter, “darn.” Hard to imagine, right? I clearly remember the first time I said “butt.” I was on the playground in fifth grade, we were seated on the blacktop, lined up in classes to walk back into Sally B. Elliott Elementary School. I looked around to make sure no one was paying attention to me (I don’t know why I bothered, I was ever the Invisible Girl), then whispered behind my cupped hand: “Butt!” When lightning didn’t strike, I said it twice more. As I moved through junior high and high school, I occasionally dusted my sentences with a choice naughty word. After my husband left ministry, I decided that one of my new-found freedoms would be the occasional cussword, in appropriate social settings. Now, I know some will disagree with me, but I think strong language can be empowering. I am tired of women being expected to talk pretty and sweet all the time, damn it.

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5. Fight and sacrifice for the one you love. I don’t condone the pulling of hair, like Tinker Bell did to Wendy, nor the attempted assassination. But props to Tink for doing what she felt she had to to protect Pan. The heart knows what it wants. Tink loved Peter, and no other girl was interfering with that. When Hook poisoned Peter’s medicine, Tink drank it herself to keep Pan from dying. There are people in my life whom I love completely without reservation or hesitation. Not only my husband and children, but other family members or dear, dear friends. I think that to love and be loved so completely is magical, no fairy dust required.

It takes faith to fly. Faith in one’s own self, in one’s dreams and aspirations, in the universe that holds us. J.M. Barrie, Tinker Bell’s creator, had this to say about belief: “For to have faith is to have wings.” It has taken me long years, but I hope that my wings are finally sprouting.

Clap Your Hands If You Believe!

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At various times in my adult life, I have played a fairy in my tenure as an entertainer at the Texas Renaissance Festival. I have played two queens- Titania (the good queen) and Mab (the bad queen). Titania is a Shakespearean fairy, the queen of the fae in his popular play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mab, sometimes called Maeve, can be found in Celtic mythology and is also featured in a Shakespearean play- Romeo and Juliet. She is the warrior side of feminine fae royalty. When I played her, I was the wicked queen, thwarting true love between my fairy born daughter and her mortal lover, but I couldn’t help injecting her with humor, donning magical “flight goggles” and swooping through Sherwood Forest like a demented dragonfly.

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I’ve also played a silly sprite named Hush who could not speak, but only blew bubbles and tooted notes in the little ocarina she wore around her neck. Hush would weave ivy garlands and create sculptures of twigs, string, and baubles she had picked up on the faire grounds. These sculptures were always placed in the mouths of a clay planter shaped like three upright fish, which was across the creek from the patron path in the Magic Garden. After sculpting or weaving, Hush would lay down for a nap, and I could hear parents pointing me out to their kids: “Look, there’s a fairy taking a nap! Blow her a kiss!” This fairy is especially dear to me. She was born in a year when, due to a medical mishap, my vocal cords were paralyzed and I couldn’t speak. Her bubbles and music became the language of the silenced actress.

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I spent one faire weekend as Puck, a mischievous creature who tumbled about and ate Twinkies from the Twinkie henge my fellow fairies and I created. Yes, there were a few ants and bits of dirt on those Twinkies. We suffer for our art!

I love being a fairy. I love the color, the sparkle, the playfulness, and the look of wonder in a child’s eyes when she blows a bubble with me or  hears my ocarina. I love that little ones gifted me with dragon tears or flowers. I love spending time amongst the leaves, water, and dappled sunshine that grace our faire’s Magic Garden.

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When you spend so much time sprinkling fairy dust on little ones, some of the dust is bound to land on you, too.

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I didn’t really know about fairies when I was a little girl. I did not have a mom that fostered a belief in the magical, I did not own any fairy tale books. I did not know about Tinkerbell, nor own a wand or set of nylon wings. So I live that magic now. I live it with my own daughters, who not only grew up with their own sets of wings, they watched their mom don wings and makeup and carry a pouch of dust and stones to share.

We are told that once we reach a certain age, usually around ten, that play is for babies, that it’s time to get to the serious stuff and stop daydreaming. That’s ridiculous. What is this beautiful planet, if not a work of breathtaking magic? What is true love, if not incandescent magic? What is a loving family, if not the most precious, magical miracle of all?

Living life playfully saves us. It heals us. It gives us hope when life buffets us with illness, debt, and loss. I believe that keeping one’s sense of wonder at little things (like the shimmering dragonfly I saw in the wildflowers this morning) gives us the power to stand up each day. Spending time stargazing or cloud watching opens our hearts to the loving energy that is so very needed in our world.

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I refuse to buy into the idea that because I am in my forties, I have to sit around in a curmudgeonly snit, or spend my time doing only practical things, thinking only practical thoughts.

I refuse to give in to cynicism.

I live magic and imagination at my faire, and now I want to bring it home. So, I am starting a fairy garden in my back yard. I will be sharing bits of that journey as it goes, from plantings to furnishings. And who knows, I might just don my wings while I work.

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