The People We’ve Been Given to Love

For Senior, 73 and just getting better

A close friend often uses the phrase, “the people we’ve been given to love” when he talks about the relationships in his life. He’s mostly talking about his family; his wife of many years, his adult daughters, and he’s often talking about how hard he has to work to be present with whatever is happening in these sometimes difficult relationships. It’s sort of a real-life twist on the lame-ass sentiment that you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.

The more mystical among us may believe that we do choose our parents. Regardless, we can’t deny how much we are shaped by our parents, and by the legacies that they themselves carry.

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. It is no exaggeration to say that as hard as these past two years have been for me, they have been just as hard on her. It is also no exaggeration to say that without her, I might not have survived.

After my nightmarish DUI, when I could barely scrape enough of myself off the floor to pick up the phone, she was the first one who said, “Do you want me to come?” And although she hates to travel alone, and despite the imposition on her life in general, she came. She’d planned to stay for a few days, and she did, driving me to doctors, lawyers, treatment clinics, sitting in waiting rooms, reading on her Nook or knitting. Trying to get me to eat. Trying to tell me how to get the shambles of my life in order.

handsWhen it became clear that this was not going to be the work of a few days, she said, “Do you want me to stay?” And even though we were driving each other insane, even though I knew she wanted to go home, I said, “yes.” So she stayed.

We sat on my couch together one evening watching “Bridesmaids” on my crappy laptop which she couldn’t hear, and she kept asking me to repeat each line of the movie. I could hardly bear to be sitting up straight, could hardly tolerate being in my own skin, and I wanted to suffocate her with a couch pillow. When the movie was over, she sat on me, the way Melissa McCarthy sits on Kristen Wiig when she is lying, greasy and depressed, on her mother’s couch, and slaps her around to force her to “fight for her crappy life.” My mother sat on me, in her nightgown, and told me that I had to fight for my life, for the life that was in pieces around me. Crying and laughing and crying, I promised her that I would.

When I was enduring (or more accurately, when my parents and I were enduring) what felt to me like a rather embattled adolescence and early adulthood, there were stretches when we could barely tolerate each other. My father adopted the role of peacemaker, telling me over and over and over that “she only says these things because she loves you. She only does this because she cares.” I wanted to reach through the phone and hit him.

guadianangelToday, 25 years later, we still have conversations like that every now and then, but I am deeply–down in my bones deeply–aware that she doesn’t only do and say what she does because she loves me. She does it because she is the kind of person who, no matter what, will always come down on the side of the angels. She can’t do it any other way.

After my accident, I asked her not to tell my brother or sister because I was so humiliated. I knew I couldn’t tell them, and I knew I didn’t want them to know. The next day, in the car on the way to yet another appointment she said, “I did something you’re going to be angry about and I’m sorry. But I told your brother and sister about the accident because they are your family and families need to stick together. They want to do anything they can to support you.”

I looked out of my window, still barely able to focus my eyes on anything, and I felt the tears on my cheeks. “Thank you,” I said.

On the side of the angels.

Below is one of my favorite birthday poems, even though it’s not a straight up birthday poem (and even though my mother hates birds). It’s by the 19th-century British poet Christina Rossetti, and I’m sharing it with this post for this reason:  my mother’s presence during one of the worst periods of my life made it possible for me to have what this poem describes.  A new life, a singing heart, and love. She gave all of this to me once, 48 years ago, and then she gave it all back to me again.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

With all love,

Junior


A Birthday

by Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.
birdsinging

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Filed under family life, gratitude, motherhood, recovery

“Let the Paths of Your Fingertips be Your Map”

For Rob who will never know;
for Parker Palmer for his wisdom and
for David Whyte for his fierceness

Some days ago, an acquaintance visited my home and I could tell he was uncomfortable there. He told me later that my house had told him much about what my life was like now, after the divorce, the tornado, the earthquake, as I am trying to put things back together. This surprised me, because although I think of my house as a way station of sorts, it is a comfortable way station, a kind of refuge that I am, for the most part, comfortable in. Leaving aside the unpacked boxes of things I do not plan to keep, the empty bookshelves I do not intend to fill, the mirrors I do not plan to hang, it is still a place of protection for me. So I was startled by his negative reaction and asked him to tell me more.  “It seemed so empty,” he said. “You seem so lost.”

emptyroomThis struck me, and as I wandered from room to relatively empty room, I could see what he saw. And I felt the truth of what he noticed. I was lost, in so many ways. This house was not my home. My life was still being pieced together one day at the time, with a sufficient yet utterly intangible sense of coherence about it. Who was I? Where was I going? Why did I still have that ridiculous box of dissertation crap from 16 years ago sitting in a box in my “office?”

Fortunately, being lost is familiar territory for me, and one of my most trustworthy guideposts is the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner (Who Shall Be the Son?),** introduced and made popular to many readers by David Whyte. The poem is meant to be an elder’s response to a young native American child’s very real question of what to do when s/he is lost in the woods, something that could surely happen when you lived in the great Pacific Northwest from whence these poems originated.

So I sat in my bare living room, the one with no curtains, and few “decorations,” and I let the words of the poem slowly sink into me, into my pores, into the tight, tired, lonely muscles, then finally into the bone. “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you/Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,/and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

Had I done that with this house, this quiet, solitary dwelling place that I sought merely out of refuge from the utter nightmare of living with my soon to be ex-husband and the woman he moved into my home when my side of the bed was barely cold?

No, I hadn’t. This house had treated me well, though; it made absolutely no demands on me. But now, as I sat in silence, I understood that I had not asked what “Here” was. What was this place? And who was I in it? Aside from the one paying the mortgage, and the one who tidied the worst of the debris now and then, what was I? I was reminded of the Dido song about home and displacement, “Life for Rent:”  “But if my life is for rent/and I don’t learn to buy/I deserve nothing more than I get/’cause nothing I have is truly mine.”

forest“The forest breathes. Listen. It answers./I have made this place around you./If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.” This strikes me as a call to homecoming no matter where we are–physically, emotionally, spiritually. It strikes me as a reminder that what surrounds us is on the one hand there for our knowing of it, but just as powerfully for our embracing of its unfamiliarity. It is not made for our convenience, but it will respond to our bravery if we are willing to step forward and say, “Here.”

“No two trees are the same to Raven./No two branches are the same to Wren.” In other words, this is not your world alone; there are many around you who know exactly where they are. “If what a tree or a bush does it lost on you,/You are surely lost.” If you have lost your powers of observation, you will never find out where you are, let alone where you are going.

I remember taking a walk with my 8-year old son Gabriel and our friend Cloydia and we stopped to observe a humble but ingeniously designed barn swallow’s nest (Gabe insisted it was a yellow tail, Cloydia held firm that it was a barn swallow), and we watched as the parent brought fortification for the nest, and food for the babies, and if you had not seen the intricacies of this perfect system, then you would indeed have been lost. The world goes on without you, in its own season and it its own time. Eventually we would come back and the mud nest would be empty but we had seen it, and we knew what it had been for.

I admit that I’ve never quite reckoned with that part of the poem before, but I feel I get a little piece of it now. If you aren’t paying attention to even the smallest things, things that seem inconsequential to your human existence, you’re missing something really, really big. If you are a writer person, like I am, you have been born with a contract you can either accept or reject. The contract is that, “I am here, and I will pay attention. I’ll never get it right, but I promise, and I believe, that if I try, the world will open and I will have something to share.”

ponderinfWhat’s more, and what David Whyte in his new book Consolations, and other essays brings us is important meditations on the ordinary–concepts like procrastination, concepts that, without gentle and insightful reflection, make one feel as though one should just be getting on with it, for God’s sake. Whyte writes: “What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavour to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination. [From Readers’ Circle Essay, “Procrastination” ©2011 David Whyte.]

Carrie Newcomer sings, “I thought if I tried hard enough/with endless motion like a bribe/as if by this the will of God/would be bent to my version of right.” But then she goes on to sing, “What happens next is clearly weightless. The opening , we stand breathless, on the clean edge of change.”

Sometimes, many times, perhaps all the time, change is weightless, free of striving, free of hacking our way through foreign underbrush to force our way out. Sometimes, many times, it is sitting in the silence of a room that is shelter and refuge but not quite home. So that when home finds you, and the promise is that it will, we are ready to kneel gracefully, and kiss the ground of our uncertainty and start on our way home.

My favorite man sent me another email forward that I usually glance at and then delete. But he got me again with this one, from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” When we have this, we have all we need, and we can give all we have away and never be bereft.

My friend and writing sister Cloydia shared this Ursula LeGuin poem with me. I hope you all love it (I know you won’t Dad, but I love you, so I’m prefacing just the last lines for your walks: “Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one, Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.”

manwalking

As always, in all love,

Leslie

——————————————————
Initiation Song From Finder’s Lodge
by Ursula LeGuin

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

**Gift time!! If you’ve read this far, and share a comment below, I will send you your very own copy of David Wagoner’s Who Shall Be the Sun! Just comment and send me your deets! Woo-h00! Happy mail in winter!

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Filed under belonging, David Wagoner, David Whyte, lost

“Just Take a Deep Breath and Do Nice Things”

Folks who’ve dropped by here before may recall references to my frequent bus riding companion. I love seeing her in the morning and in the evening and sometimes find myself smiling with so much relief that she’s just THERE. Like bookends to my day. This little human connection, odd as it sometimes is, adds so much.

Recently I heard about this super cool project called Humans of New York (HONY) that posts quotes and photos about everyday people in NYC. With over eight million followers on social media, HONY now provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City. It has also become a #1 NYT bestselling book. It’s such an amazing example of how connection feeds and nourishes us, and how belonging is like oxygen.

Wanting to belong, to feel connected can come out in such weird, trivial ways. I recently started using this Google Chrome extension called “Momentum” that you can personalize as your home page. It asks you what your main focus for the day is. It also says, “Good morning [insert your name here].” I personalized my page on my home tablet to say “Good morning sweetie!” and it’s absurd how happy this makes me feel. For my main focus of the day on my home machine I’ve been writing things like, “love everything about yourself today,” or just “love everything.” It’s a tiny act of self-love, supported by goofy technology.

So back to my bus friend. She was recently telling me about some work stressors, and usually I tune in and out because I’ve heard them all before, but part of me is always waiting for “the line.” The line is the thing that she’s going to say that suddenly shifts the conversation from a litany of complaints to something major, and worth taking in. Towards the end of her last description of irritants, she said, “So I decided that all I could really do was to just take a deep breath and do nice things.” And there it was. The line.

Just take a breath and do nice things. Of course. Of course. My own personally-delivered version of John Wesley’s famous wesleyadmonition. My hope for you is that you are on both the receiving and giving ends of this deeply lovely sentiment as often as possible. And as always, that you stop by to tell us about it.

Today’s poem is again by David Whyte. Note how he moves towards suggesting that what we truly need may very often by seeing the reflection of ourselves in the eyes of another; feeling our own bodies through another’s touch. Just our real, physical, tangible presence is all we need and all that’s required.

With love,

Leslie

Second Sight

Sometimes, you need the ocean light,
and colors you’ve never seen before
painted through an evening sky.

Sometimes you need your God
to be a simple invitation,
not a telling word of wisdom.

Sometimes you need only the first shyness
that comes from being shown things
far beyond your understanding,

so that you can fly and become free
by being still and by being still here.

And then there are times you need to be
brought to ground by touch
and touch alone.

To know those arms around you
and to make your home in the world.
just by being wanted.

To see those eyes looking back at you,
as eyes should see you at last,

seeing you, as you always wanted to be seen,
seeing you, as you yourself
had always wanted to see the world.

– David Whyte
from Pilgrim
©2012 Many Rivers Press

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Filed under belonging, connection, poetry, real life

Things That Carry Us

Very few people believe this, but I love riding the bus. Since I lost my license last April, I have become the world’s biggest fan of my community’s public transportation system, which really is pretty fantastic. But we are such a car-dependent society that unless you live in a large city, it’s hard to imagine existing easily without a vehicle.

Here, though, it works. It’s affordable, convenient, and it expands my world view. I meet new people all the time, eavesdrop shamelessly on private conversations, see things that I would never otherwise see from the confines of my own private vehicle. It’s a writer’s paradise.

ugly bus stop with mailbox in the background

lame picture of ugly bus stop with unidentifiable mailbox in the background

Last week, I was sitting at this gray, sort of depressing bus stop at the edge of a run down shopping area, willing my fingers not to become frostbitten, and I noticed a public mailbox in the middle of the parking lot. I was surprised to see it there because there seem to be fewer public mailboxes around these days.

Anyway, a few minutes passed, and this little old couple in a little old car pulled slowly up to the mailbox. The little old man rolled down the window about two inches and sort of scrunched this letter out through the window into the mailbox, rolled the window back up, and then very slowly drove away. A few more minutes passed, and a mail truck pulled up to empty the mailbox, and I thought how lovely that was–that the old man’s letter would be picked up and carried on along its way. Just like the bus I was waiting for would pick me up and carry me home.

Tiny_Beautiful-330Just like the book I’m reading, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is carrying along my thoughts and feelings about love. Moving me forward, making me feel less alone, the way the best writing always does. The book is about many things, but I’m finding the pieces about love to be particularly moving.

For example, in response to one reader (Johnny’s) question about his ambivalence about when it’s right to say “I love you” to the woman he’s dating, and his plaintive query,”What is this love thing all about?”, she writes: “You aren’t afraid of love. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love…Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word ‘love’ to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel…Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word ‘love’ to all the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will. We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime” (Strayed, pp. 16-18).

My favorite man in the world called me last night to tell me that he loved me, and he sent me an email this morning, one of those chain ones that I usually hate that said “I wish you enough.” I sat in my office and started to cry. My second favorite man always tells me that he loves me when we say goodbye on the phone. It wasn’t always this way, but when things were hard in our family over the past few years, it started to become the thing we said to each other, to carry us along, and now we always say it because it’s true, and it’s the bridge that keeps us connected until the next conversation. I love you. I love you, too.

The poem for today is by David Whyte, whom I had in mind because I remember hearing him speak about the difference between hiking and kayaking. He said how struck he was by the difference in being carried by the water in a kayak, how you could carry so much more with you because you yourself were being carried along by this elemental force instead of being weighed down by everything you needed to carry on your back.

I’m pretty sure it’s like that with love.

What carries you? What helps you keep your head above water, or buoys you along when you need a little extra support? What connects you? I’d love it if you’d share (leave a comment), and so will others who stop by to read! [One last thing, and apologies for being self-promoting, but if you enjoy reading this blog, do feel free to share with others, via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.]

Loaves and Fishes

This is not the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

–David Whyte

loaves-and-fishes1

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Filed under connection, love, recovery

For You: A Candle Burning

SedonaStonesThrough a stroke of incredible good fortune and family kindness, I spent Thanksgiving in Sedona, AZ and it was wonderful. Sedona is supposed to have several energy vortices that generate peace, awareness, and various types of transformation. I’m pretty sure this atmosphere affected even my dad who, of course, does not believe in such nonsense (and, I believe, actually once scoffed out loud at people meditating near one of the vortices), and yet managed to return from one of his trips with a now suspiciously well-worn ochre-toned t-shirt that my mother calls “his Zen shirt.”

In any case, Sedona was just one of the many gifts that have graced my life in the last several months, and that have allowed me again and again to experience the poetry of Psalm 23:5, “My cup overflows with blessings.” So many people have helped me in so many ways over the past 22 months. I am awestruck almost every day by something that reminds me of all of the goodness, sweetness, and love that is and has, quite simply, just been there.

There’s someone in my life right now who is my personal angel Gabriel, only she drives a black tricked out Chrysler 300 and swears a lot. But every word out of her mouth, no matter what she is actually saying, is essentially this: “Do not be afraid;  for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” That’s what she’s saying, over and over, all the time. If I could give her to everyone I know for Christmas, I would.

Instead, I’ll share a few of the things she tells me, because a lot of people struggle with holiday crap, and with just crap in general that gets magnified at this time of the year, and passing along her wisdom might help. She says things like, “Yeah, you could do life on your own. You could. But you shouldn’t, and anyway, WHY THE FUCK would you want to??” (I told you she swears a lot). She also says, “Nothing is going to get better until you figure out how to make YOURSELF the love of your own life. Stop caring so much about what everyone else thinks. Because for real? They’re not really thinking about you all that much.”

Often she says, “Whatever bullshit you’re telling yourself about how HARD things are is wrong. Nothing is HARD. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s not actually hard. It’s simple: do the next right thing even when you don’t want to. Even when it makes you uncomfortable. And for God’s sake, look around. Don’t you see all these other people who could use some damn help? Do something for them and stop thinking about yourself.”

Chapel2

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ

When I was in Sedona, I went to the Chapel of the Holy Cross and it was beautiful. As in most Catholic churches, there’s an area where you can light a candle as a way to offer prayers for someone or something. Also, like most (all) Catholic churches, there was a donation box. I didn’t have any cash with me, so I left a sobriety medal instead. I also left a small cross that my mom gave me when my life fell to pieces, because I wanted to give it back, as a way to say thank you for the fact that my life is shaping itself back together in a way that feels miraculous.

I use this word very deliberately because, as my gorgeous, my foul-mouthed angel Gabriel says, “You want to know why your life feels like a freaking miracle, girl? Because IT IS a freaking miracle! After what you did, after what happened to you, if you don’t see that as divine intervention, you trippin’. Everyone who wakes up in the morning and has the sense to be grateful that they woke up at all is a damn miracle!” (She really does swear a lot).

So there is something I want you to know. And I mean you, specifically, reading this right now. At this very moment, there is a candle burning just for you in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the breathtakingly beautiful red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. Because when I lit one of my candles, I thanked God for every single thing, everything large and small, known and unknown, every spoken and unspoken act of kindness, love and mercy that I’ve received in these past two years. That candle, that light, that flame is there for you. Right now, for whatever you need in whatever way you need it.

offeringcandles

American poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” Sometimes in recovery people say, “You don’t have to believe you’ll get better. We’ll believe it for you until you’re ready to believe it for yourself.” So just in case you need some extra light or warmth, there’s at least one flame out there especially for you. Because that’s how it works. That’s how we make it.

All love, all gratitude, and lots of hope for a joyful holiday,

Leslie

What We Need is Here (by Wendell Berry)

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
SedonaMary1

Tlaquepaque Mary, Sedona

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Filed under Christmas 2014, gratitude, recovery

To Live in This World

for Gabe at the start of his season

 

When he was about 7, Gabe said to me, in his odd, precise way, “Well, you aren’t often wrong.” He wouldn’t say that now. Just shy of 9, he’s seen many things go wrong. Yet there is a growing sense that some important things are being set right. Being made new, made whole. Leaves are falling, but there is also a harvest coming.

GabeGPP1

Continue reading

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Filed under hope, parenting, poetry, recovery

“It was like, we were all okay. And that was nice.”

Hello friends, and happy change-of-seasons! A small story for you, and a hope that you will read and perhaps even write in to share your thoughts!

I ride the bus to work with a lady who has a very odd conversational style. She tells me long, tedious, repetitive stories, the subtexts of which are that she is easily overwhelmed by relatively simple things, like how to pay her Comcast bill (mail it and waste a stamp or drive it to the office?), or figuring out how to use the printer at work. Yet the sub-subtext is that she is really trying to stay positive in the face of these tasks, and to pass this positivity on to others.

suncloudsOften, in the middle of her long stories, she’ll pause and say something totally stunning and totally out of context. For example, we had been talking about some film she was having developed at Walgreens (does anyone actually do this anymore?), and she stopped, looked at me and said, “You are making exactly the right choices you need to be making for yourself at this moment.” I briefly wondered if her eyes were going to roll back in her head or if she would start speaking in tongues, but she just carried on with the film story.

Sometimes her messages aren’t as abrupt, but they still feel a bit like unexpected and useful rays of clarity. A few weeks ago, she was describing, in great detail, where she was going to have her new TV installed (by Comcast), and as we got off the bus to walk to our offices, she said, “Today is going to be a positive day and we will feel good about helping other people!”

Indeed.

A day or two ago, she was relating an experience involving an evening of Scrabble, a person with paranoia, and a disgruntled family member. Then she just stopped and said, “It was like, we were all okay. And…and that was…really nice.”

These odd semi-non-sequiturs are like small, clear bubbles of human truths that rise up from mundane narrations of everyday life, and I appreciate them each time. Yes, I could easily imagine how all of a sudden, in the midst of a game of Scrabble with some only questionably sane people, one might be struck by the feeling that, no matter what, we really are all okay. And not only is that feeling very nice; sometimes, it’s all you need to keep you going.

What small experiences cause you to pause and remember what matters to you? Strange, odd, funny, poignant, moving, simple…whatever they might be…what recent moments have given you perhaps just the briefest glimpse of something that felt real and important. I’d love it so if you cared to share!

In this spirit, today’s poem is by Mary Oliver, from her 2006 book, Thirst. This collection is something of a deviation from previous works, and definitely worth checking out if you’re a Mary Oliver lover. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, I love hearing from you!

All love,

Leslie

Praying
by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

the last end of summer daisy on my walk to the bus stop

the last summer daisy on my morning walk to the bus stop

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Filed under faith, gratitude, hope, listening, poetry