I cannot pretend for a moment that I was so visionary as to intentionally seek out and purchase my very first Mary Oliver book on the day the world was reeling from a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
But that is what happened and the juxtaposition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s soothing and wise Mother Nature with the images on my TV screen of thrashing boats and whole houses being thrown about like they weighed no more than seaweed was uncanny. Oliver writes this in The Leaf and the Cloud:
It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else.
That turn of phrase usually evokes a babbling brook or, more generally, water’s beautiful, elusive liquidity. But now, like a nightmare that keeps looping, when I read that verse I see water rushing, gushing, powering its way through streets, upending cars, wiping out farms with its force, destroying lives.
I am typically not a big fan of a person using relativism to make her problem seem smaller because someone else has it worse; there’s usually little benefit in diminishing how you feel when, in that moment, your problem is very real. But right now, with what is going on globally, when there are approximately 9,500 people missing from one town in Japan, I am making an exception and even suggesting we are obligated to look at this catastrophe in all kinds of reflective ways regardless of our own stead.
First, of course, what can we do to help directly? Write a check? Say a prayer? Fly across the world and volunteer our services?
Second, how can something like this shift our perspective and bring out our humanity? The bill collector is just doing her job. Your knee surgery hurts like heck but will eventually heal. Your unrequited love is still an experience in the precious gift of love.
Third, as global citizens, don’t we owe it to each other to live, really live, in the wake of destruction experienced by our brothers and sisters? Don’t we honor their grief by using it as a wakeup call?
Last weekend I attended church service with a friend at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City and the senior minister, Dr. Michael B. Brown, gave a thought-provoking sermon on the premise that there’s no time like the present. He told a story of his adult children visiting and convincing him to sit and watch a movie with them rather than retire to another room to work. He watched the movie, enjoyed it and noted that the sun still came up the next day even though he hadn’t gotten to the blog post he was supposed to write. It hit just the right note, for at a time of uncertainty all over the planet, we are called to look at our everyday lives and see what priorities need shifting or what part of our routine could use an out-and-out jolt.
While Brown’s message didn’t have an apocalyptic tone, I couldn’t help but think of how extreme things feel in the world. If there’s something we want to do in life, what are we waiting for? The ground is shaking, folks.
In a meditation during the service, congregants were asked to finish this statement in silence: Today I will ____. My mind went into overdrive and I made some vows then and there to do more in a myriad of ways in my life. After Sept. 11, 2001, so many of us that were left behind heeded that call and changed course for the better. Now is the appointed time to do so again.
Call me crazy, but it’s either that or wallow in our helplessness as once-vital bodies decay in piles across the world.
“If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like,” Mary Oliver told Maria Shriver in an interview for the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
As I watched one image from Japan of adults hugging a crying child as they looked around at the devastation, I wondered if they had anything left to call home and how they would ever explain to that child the sometimes gentle, grounded quality of Mother Nature. And yet it is likely someday that child will gaze upon a mountain surrounded by the bluest of blue sky or see a bird swoop in to gather branches for its nest, or read a William Wordsworth poem about a “host of golden daffodils” and be filled with delight.
At least that is my most fervent hope.