National Poetry Month: Mary Oliver Invites us to Reflect on our Place in the “Family of Things”

15 Apr


It’s National Poetry Month! I’m not an every day poetry reader, but every April I’m inspired to set aside time to reflect on the powerful words that poke at life’s most challenging questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What does it matter? Where do we belong? What’s the point of art? Of love? How does inequality and injustice affect us all?

I sign up for Knopf’s Poem-a-Day daily email, try to memorize a poem or two, and make an effort to appreciate the power words have to connect people and present the world from new angles.

This year, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Mary Oliver, particularly her collection Dream WorkAfter listening to her moving interview on On Being, “Listening to the World” a few weeks ago I decided to try out a few of her collections.

“Listening to the World” is such an apt title for this interview because being present, alive, and ingrained in the world is what so many of Oliver’s poems are about.

Living in a city, it can be tough to feel part of the natural world. During my daily commute through rush hour traffic I pass what seems like dozens of fried chicken restaurants, litter scattered along the roadsides, piles of snow the color of charcoal, which leaves me craving nature like I’ve never craved it before. Oliver’s poetry has exacerbated those cravings.

I want to briefly discuss two poems from Dream Work that moved me and to which I keep returning, discovering new insights and uncovering new emotions each time I do.

Dogfish: Don’t get caught looking for an easier world

“Dogfish” is the first poem in Dream Work and won my heart over after the first read. And, each proceeding journey through the poem revealed something new. The juxtaposition of the dogfish and the three small fish paired with the speaker’s wandering thoughts about grand themes like her life’s work, love, and struggle, makes it almost seem like the fish are having similar thoughts.

The fish seem to symbolize and reflect for the speaker her own struggles.

“And look! look! look! I think those little fish

better wake up and dash themselves away from the hopeless future that is

bulging toward them.


And probably ,

if they don’t waste time

looking for an easier world,

they can do it.”

There’s so much here. And I’m still not sure what these lines mean. But the fish seem to represent the struggles we all face and emphasize the idea that there is no easier world. We can search for an easier world and get eaten by the dogfish, sucked into the hopeless future that is bulging toward us. Or we can dash ourselves away, and face the past and the vulnerability of love and the knowledge of who we are.

Because “nobody gets out of it, having to/ swim through the fires to stay in/ this world”

Wild Geese: Let yourself belong to the family of things 

“Wild Geese” is one of Oliver’s most famous and popular poems, and I can see why. It’s opening line: “You do not have to be good.” is striking in and of itself. This isn’t your everyday motivational speech.

It goes on: “…You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” We are fragile; we are soft; we are animals, just like any animal, part of the world, whether we are good or not.

We can talk about our despair, “Meanwhile the world goes on.” That notion that we are just another creature, part of something bigger, and the world will go on without us is sobering, but comforting as well. Our despairs are not so big after all. The world isn’t affected by our problems, but we’re called to appreciate its grandeur while we’re here.

But, wait; it gets better. I’ll just share the last five lines. They’re so beautiful!

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

We don’t have to be good to belong to this big, beautiful, mysterious world; we just do, simply by existing and loving what we love. It’s up to us, however, whether to answer the call of the wild geese, and acknowledge our place in “the family of things,” or whether to let it pass us by with our nose in our smart phone, distracted too much by our daily stresses and despairs to notice.

I won’t go as far as Jonathan Franzen in his collection of essays, Farther Away, to say that literature is my religion, but there’s an undeniable spiritual power present in poetry. I agree with Franzen that there’s power in words that can nourish the soul.

It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day: the daily commute, the dirty snow, the hours of screen time, the trials of daily business. What better way to nourish the soul and reimagine our place in the world than through the age-old power of poetic language?

Photo credit: Talia Cohen, UnderSeas Photography


A Recommendation for Middlemarch (from a Brit Lit Amateur)

31 Jan

MiddlemarchI have a confession to make.

I’ve struggled admitting this truth as I trudged through literature class after literature class in undergrad and grad school. But I’m ready to admit…here it goes…I don’t love classic Brit Lit.  (?!*!?!) I know…

Let me clarify. I say I don’t love it because I also don’t hate it. I recognize the value and artful social critique in A Tale of Two Cities and I understand why some people love it. Learning about a time and place so different from contemporary U.S., getting sucked in by the subtle mockery of traditional British decorum found in so many novels from 18th and 19th century British writers, can be funny and heartbreaking and beautiful.

For a while, when I was in high school, I tried to convince myself and others that Jane Eyre was my favorite book. I so wanted to “get it” and be part of the Anglophile club so many of my lit loving friends were part of.

Well everyone, the ruse is up. I’ll even admit, I’ve never made it through an entire Jane Austen novel because every time I start, I fall asleep within five pages. I don’t know if it’s the style I can’t get into, or that I don’t always understand the references, but whatever it is, I’ve never found the classic British novelists (Dickens, Austen, the Bronte’s, etc.) quite as entertaining or powerful as 20th-21st century texts.

Whew…Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I will say I was moved in a unique sort of way by the final pages of George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch, which I forced myself to read this year from start to finish.

Though it took me two months to finish, Eliot’s Finale tied it all together and made the weeks plodding through each page totally worth it. Here are the lines that sealed the deal for me loving this book:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The significance of every character in her long, winding novel about the connectedness of life in small-town England, is highlighted in this passage. Casaubon’s anxiety that he will be forgotten and his life’s work meaningless is especially punctuated. The irony is, Casaubon’s work was useless and the impressions he made on those around him were mostly negative. He wasted his life trying to make sure he didn’t waste his life.

Most of us will not be famous or find the cure for a major disease or found the next Apple or write the next Great American Novel. Heck, we probably won’t even be remembered beyond our children or grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. We shape the good and the future of the world in whatever small way we can.

Maybe that’s the point. I’m starting to think, for the first time in my life, maybe that’s enough.

Whatever Eliot’s trying to say, now that I’ve experienced the masterfully spun web that is Middlemarch, I can honestly say it’s well worth the investment.

Photo cred: Gerard Moonen via Unsplash

Accepting Our Connectedness: Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

22 Dec

Lake Michigan

Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is striking for its direct address to the audience and Eggers’ stream-of-consciousness, reflective style.

I’ve never read a book in which the author directly states the reader probably shouldn’t read the appendix.

For example, Eggers says the #1 point to keep in mind about the appendix: “This appendix need not be read to understand or enjoy the book proper. It is only for: 1) the author; 2) those with extra time; 3) those with interest disproportionate to what is warranted.

It’s this sort of self-deprecating humor that cracks me up throughout the winding memoirish book.

What I Mean by Memoirish

A.H.W.O.S.G (as Eggers abbreviates the title) fits in the shell of a memoir, but reads almost like a long-winded diary. The details he includes aren’t always what you’d consider “memoir material.” The anecdotes aren’t necessarily linear and seem more like whatever Eggers felt like writing about that day, not carefully chosen details that illustrate a person’s life like a traditional memoir would.

Of course, Eggers writes about the big, life changing stuff, like the death of his parents and friends (I can see where the “heartbreaking” in the title comes from), but he also fills pages with frisbee moves he and Toph come up with, or a 50 page interview with MTV’s Real World.

Both Beautiful and Gruesome

Part of what’s so unique about the book is Eggers’ technique of using stream-of-consciousness to make even the most serious scenes humorous. He’s able to illustrate pain, but in such a real way; it’s funny, but all the more human because of it. According to The Guardian book review, “When he drops the gimmicks, he can be hilarious and devastating – sometimes both at once.”

Eggers’ ability to portray both the tragedy and the hilarity of life is the book’s most distinctive and moving characteristic.   One of the most touching and heartbreaking, yet undeniably funny examples of this style of writing is when Dave goes back to Chicago years after his parents’ deaths on a mission to find their remains. He locates his mother’s ashes at his hometown funeral home and decides to scatter them in Lake Michigan.

The scene starts when he opens the box:

“Fuck. Someone switched the ashes with this fucking kitty litter. This is not it. Where is the ash, the ash like dust? This is not ash.”

His circular thoughts continue:

“This is stupid, this throwing the cremains into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan? Ridiculous, small, tacky. Why just a lake? A Great Lake, sure, but–I should be at the Atlantic. I should be on Cape Cod…”

Finally, after several pages of questioning whether he’s in the right place, interspersed with sincere reflections about his relationship with his mother, his Catholic upbringing, and whether he should jump into the freezing lake, he admits the polarity of what he’s doing:

“I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful and gruesome because I am destroying its beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it’s no longer beautiful.”

This depiction of doing something both beautiful and gruesome seems to be the books’ statement about life. There’s so much reflection, so many circling of ideas. Perhaps it’s implying that we destroy the beauty of life by reflecting too much and knowing in the moment that it might be beautiful. But we can’t help ourselves

Separateness and Connectedness

With his ability to portray some of his life’s most serious and painful events through the humor of his stream-of-consciousness, questioning, often crude thought, Eggers reveals both the individuality and the connectedness of human experience. There were times when I felt I couldn’t relate at all to Eggers’ character–his messy house and microwave dinners, for example. But, even so, his reflections and thoughts often reflected my own emotions during painful or uncomfortable times.

Eggers acknowledges this dichotomy of being both the same and different from the people around us. He says once he arrives in Chicago: “They know I am not them. I am something else. I am deformed, am a hundred years old. I will spend the next day looking for the remains of my parents” (367).

He believes he is unique; he is special because he is about to embark on something painful that others can’t relate to.

But by the end, he comes to realize he’s not so different. Life is painful. To assume that you’re other, that you’re separate because you’re suffering, is simply not true.

  • “There is nowhere I stop and you begin.”

  • “I am there. I was there. Don’t you know that I am connected to you?”

But he seems angry about this realization, like it’s something he’s discovered and everyone else is still unaware of.

Maybe we are unaware.  Maybe we don’t want to admit that our pain isn’t unique to us. But maybe there’s comfort, too, in knowing that we’re all connected in our pain. Maybe Eggers is saying it can be both.

“Timshel. Thou mayest:” The power of choice in East of Eden

8 Oct

east of eden timshelReviews for John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden,  vary widely in their opinions of and takeaways from the novel. While The Grapes of Wrath, at least today, seems to be a generally agreed upon classic (whatever that means), East of Eden has been called Steinbeck’s best and worst book depending on the time it was reviewed and the critic.

Shortly after it’s publication in 1952, well-known critic, Mark Shorer, describes East of Eden as “probably the best” of Steinbeck’s novels. But Harold Bloom wrote that nothing by Steinbeck after The Grapes of Wrath, including East of Eden, deserves re-reading. And Jia Lynn Yang rants in the Yale Review of Books about the novel’s inclusion in Oprah’s book club: it’s “disheartening to report that East of Eden is a complete dud” and “the trouble with rubber-stamping a mediocre novel a ‘classic,’…is that it doesn’t leave much room for readers to make independent critical judgements.”

None of these critics are wrong. That’s one thing I love about the study of literature: the ability for two people to come up with completely different answers and both be right as long as their points are supported.

My take on the novel? It was nice. Not mind blowing, but I enjoyed its unexpectedly smooth read and provocative story even if it seemed a little preachy or forced at times.

While East of Eden as a whole didn’t move me to rethink the nature of good and evil as it may have intended to (a lofty goal), I was struck by two literary elements in the novel:

  1. The characterization of Lee
  2. The discussion of the meaning of the Hebrew word: timshel

While it’s suggested that Lee’s character doesn’t have the sort of choices other characters in the novel do, he is the one that introduces the concept of timshel: the idea that there’s choice and agency in our lives. Nothing is predetermined.

Lee: The Philosophical Voice of an Outsider

We aren’t given much about Lee’s background other than his parents immigrated to America from China. I’m not even sure how he ended up in Salinas Valley since for much of the novel he discusses friends and distant family in San Francisco.

Lee is the live-in aid for the Trask family and symbolizes the loyalty and strength of character the Tracks lack. Honestly, I’m not going to do Lee justice in this informal blog post. He needs a whole book or at least an article written about his character alone.

For example, you could write a whole journal article about the significance of Lee’s speaking in a Chinese pidgin accent to assume America’s expectations about him even though he’s able to speak English well.

But I’m not going to get into that today. Mainly, I just want to talk about how much I like him. Lee is loyal (maybe to a fault) and acts as the novel’s philosophical and moral compass. I wish we could see more of him.

For example, at one point he leaves the Trasks to fulfill his dream of opening a book store in San Francisco, but returns shortly after. It’d be interesting to see what happened if he had stayed or hear the real reason why he came back. He says he missed the Trasks too much, but the underlying message seems perhaps he was just unsuccessful. When you consider the anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco during the time the novel is set (early 1900s) with ordinances against Chinese housing and employment and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it’s no wonder Lee was forced to return.

Timshel: “That gives a choice”

The scene where I became most interested in Lee, which leads to the second illuminating part of the novel for me, takes place about a year after the twins, Caleb and Aron, are born. During a conversation between Lee, Samuel Hamilton, and Adam, Lee brings up a discrepancy in different translations of the Bible in which God speaks to humans about their power over sin:

“Don’t you see? The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in “Thou shalt,” meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–‘Thou mayest’–that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’–it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

To be ordered or to be promised like the American Standard and the King James translations both remove the agency from the action and the actor. But the Hebrew word, timshel, in this biblical scene, reveals the choice inherent in every action. There’s no one to blame but ourselves, whether that refers to conquering sin, overcoming addiction, following through on goals, living out values, taking care of and naming our sons etc. etc.

The revelation has a profound impact on Samuel Hamilton who  comments on the possibility within the single Hebrew word:

“‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

There’s some obvious foreshadowing here, which makes me think of Cal’s character. He’s painted as the bad egg, especially in the beginning. Probably everyone who reads the novel already knows the book as a retelling of Genesis and Cal and Aron are Cain and Able. Is Cal, because of his genes or instincts or allusion to Cain, destine to kill Aron? The idea of timshel, in this scene, suggests not. He can choose his course and fight it and win.

The next question is: is Cal able to win, even with all the forces of his “bad blood” and jealous nature working against him?

Adam’s last line in the novel says it all: timshel. 

Photo credit: by mr. lee

Fresh Start

31 Aug

work station


There’s little I love more than a fresh start. Wiping the slate clean and starting over with renewed motivation and a clear outlook. That’s why I’ve always loved the beginning of a new school year.

The smell of summer changing into fall, the warm, humid days slowly growing shorter and cooler, the sound of referee whistles and marching bands, the rise and fall of cicada music signaling it’s time to get back to work.

Even as a little girl, I loved stepping into the building on the first day of school: new locker, new teacher, new subjects to conquer with the hope and optimism of an empty year yet to be filled, sprawled out before me like a book yet to be written. There’s just something about walking into a classroom, backpack full of new notebooks and gel pens full of ink, that make me feel powerful; like this year is the year I can accomplish anything.

I’ll admit, that feeling of unbridled enthusiasm diminished after about two weeks as the work piled up and the motivation wore off, but I always looked forward to those first few days. Those first impressions with new professors and class periods with exciting projects and the prospect of interesting new books to read.

I no longer  run on an academic schedule, so it’s weird to feel the summer drawing to a close and not be pulling out fresh notebooks and 18th century novels to kick off another school year. I get nostalgic just thinking about syllabus day.

Since I no longer have a fresh start conveniently built into my year with the cycle of academic semesters, I guess  I’ll just have to create my own new beginning. I took the summer off from writing and blogging, but now it’s time to begin again. Fresh.FA5A8285a

In my measly attempt to make excuses, it’s not like I wasn’t doing anything this summer. I got married in June (no big deal), went on a honeymoon to San Francisco (amazing!), and the rest of the summer…well…I’ve just been too busy having fun to do much of anything else (city league volleyball, c-league, silver-bracket champs!).

But even after one of the best summers of my life, I’m still ready for the change of seasons and the signal that it’s time to get back to work. With fresh goals and renewed motivation, I look out the window on this perfect end-of-summer day and tell myself: “This is the year I can accomplish anything.”

Photo Credit: Aleksi Tappura

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