A Poem for Our Times: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

I’m a big fan of poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019). Her passion for the natural world intertwined with intense human emotion both inspire and challenge our assumptions.

Credit: Orion Magazine

“Wild Geese” (2004) is one of her most popular and often quoted poems. When I reread it recently, I thought it particularly suited for our times.

American culture is rife with public scrutiny, shame, ridicule, and censorship. Daily messages of outrage tell us that we don’t measure up. We are condemned for our beliefs and even whom we love.

“Wild Geese” is a reminder that you are enough. You don’t need to live someone else’s definition of what is “good”.

You can move past your mistakes. Each day begins anew. No matter your err of yesterday, the sun still rises and sets.

You need not be weighed down by guilt or shame. You can fly wild and free.

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

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.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems, Gardners Books, 2004

Your Brain on Grief

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Why does grief hurt so much? 

Mary-Frances O’Connor’s new book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss attempts to answer this question and more through neuroscience and personal stories of bereavement. 

Dr. O’Connor, a clinical psychologist, directs the Grief, Loss, and Social Stress Lab at the University of Arizona. She studies the effects of grief on the brain and body. Her findings show how the brain’s hormones and neurochemicals produce this aching and seemingly unbearable sensation we know as grief.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of disbelief after a loved one died.

Maybe you even continued to look for him or her, even though you witnessed the funeral. O’Connor explains this phenomenon. 

The brain struggles to understand what happened when our loved one dies. The dimensions that we once knew them in—space and time—disappear. 

Yet we remain attached.

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Our brain hasn’t yet caught up with this disparity and still expects our loved one to return.

The brain has to unlearn the predicted associations of place and time. The passage of time is needed to update the mind maps we used to locate our loved one.

Alicia_Garcia: Getty Images/iStockphoto

O’Connor’s grief studies include loss of important friendships and romantic breakups. These losses also produce a sense of disbelief and yearning.

Absence of a special person, O’Connor says, sets off emotional alarm bells. Our invisible attachment bonds are stretched beyond what we think we can handle.

This alarm is compounded if the absence occurs abruptly, a.k.a “ghosting”. Since our brain believes and knows the absent person is still “out there”, it searches for explanations and seeks to “fix” whatever led to the departure.

Just as after a death, our brain must learn to imagine a future apart from this absent love. 

I found the The Grieving Brain a fascinating read. O’Connor sheds light on the universal experience of grieving, helping us to feel less alone, less crazy, and better equipped to move forward.

***

She concludes with this comforting thought:

“The physical makeup of our brain–the structure of our neurons–has been changed by them. …and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death…Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us…Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.”

Update: My adapted essay, “Losing My Words”, has been included in the newly published Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving, Loss, and Healing. 101 Stories of Comfort and Moving Forward.

Do You Get Me? Writing from another person’s perspective.

“The characters were so believable!”

This is a compliment any fiction writer would love to hear.

To craft memorable stories, the writer needs to enter the mind and heart of her characters and then bring them to life on the page.

How do you do this?

You can find excellent guide books on this fascinating topic. For starters, I’l offer key traits a writer should cultivate when trying to get into someone else’s head.

Curiosity

Intuition

Imagination

Open-mindedness

Listening skills

Empathy

Sensitivity

Notice how this list applies to our real life relationships? 

Imagine how such skills and practice could shape our present day divisions.

While one can never truly know another, the quest to do so—and to be seen ourselves—drives us.

Sometimes to love and madness. 

Try putting yourself in my shoes, for a change.

You just don’t understand.

Are you crazy?

She can read my mind.

He really gets me.

It’s easier to write characters with a similar perspective, background, and age as yourself. But to stick with that limits the scope of your creative work. Plus, it’s boring!

Writers who wrote outside their own boundaries brought us great literature from Henry James to Agatha Christie. Men transporting themselves into a woman’s head and vice versa.

Nabokov wrote Lolita in the voice and mind of a murderous pedophile.

The best-selling novel, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, (Mark Haddon) is narrated by an autistic teen.

Let’s consider age.

I am all the ages I have ever been. ~ Anne Lamott

In Room, Emma Donoghue narrates the book through the eyes of a 5 year old boy being held captive in a small room along with his mother.

J.D. Salinger’s inner 17-year-old, Holden Caulfield, catapulted Catcher in the Rye to classic fame. 

My middle-school students were always shocked to learn that cult fav, The Outsiders, narrated by a 16 year old boy, was penned by a teen-aged girl.

Beloved children’s author, Judy Blume, now age 83, attributed the success of her children’s books to her ability to access her inner child. “I’m still like an 11 or 12 year old inside,” she told an interviewer.

How about writing in an age you have yet to be ?

Marilynne Robinson’s, Pulitzer-Prize winning Gilead is a diary from a 76 year old preacher to his young son.

I’ve written stories from the perspective of a confused middle-aged man, a 25 year old exotic dancer, and a 9 year old fire starter. My current project features an almost 12 year old roller coaster enthusiast. To capture her essence, I read childhood diaries, studied old photos, and visualized my 6th grade self.

But it’s the spirit of a 15 year old girl that comes most naturally. Perhaps because 15 was a pivotal year in my life. I also work with teenagers, so I get to know them up close. 

My recently published short story, “My Father’s Messiah”, is about a 15 year old orthodox Jewish girl who worries her widowed father may be losing his mind.

I am honored to be awarded the First Prize in the Katherine Paterson Award for Young Adult Literature. Thank you to Hunger Mountain Journal and Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

It begins like this:


Every school morning, my father wakes me the same way: he yanks open my blinds, slaps his hands together, and says, “Boker tov, beautiful daughter. Time to rise and serve your Creator.” 

Once upon a time, I didn’t need wake-up calls. I bounced out of bed as if each day delivered a surprise package. When I was five, I might have found my father’s routine cute, but now my fifteen-year-old brain barely registers Abba’s words. Instead, I hold onto my last dream before it morphs to reality.  

“And who knows?” my father booms. “Today might be the day the Messiah comes!”

He says this says every morning. No joke. 


You can read the story here

What is your inner age?

A Book To Take You Out Of This World: How to Astronaut

Are you suffering from screen fatigue?

Need distraction from the daily gloom and doom?

If so, take a ride with NASA astronaut, Terry Virts. His captivating new book, How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Earth takes us on an incredible journey of spaceflight from training to launch, to orbit and re-entry. 

Terry’s goal for writing the book was to get readers saying “Wow!” and make them laugh.  I can attest that the author achieved his mission. 

Each of the 51 chapters–essays really–can be enjoyed in any order. Nothing overly technical or boring here. Bonus photos, too.

Terry Virts, an International Space Station Commander, is a terrific storyteller. His behind-the-scenes descriptions of astronaut training, zero gravity, first blastoff, on-board tasks, and spacewalks are illuminating and often funny.

If you ever wondered what it really takes to become an astronaut, the answer may surprise you.  (Hint: Start those Russian language lessons.)

Terry adresses other questions like: 

What happens if you get stranded in space? 

 Answer: “You have your whole life to figure it out”. 

What if a crew member dies while on board? 

Answer:  “You’ve got 3 choices…”

And one of the most common questions (after the bathroom one):

Have any astronauts ever had sex in space? 

Answer: Read the book to find out!

Virts covers not just the fantastic elements of spaceflight but the mundane details of daily life: bathing, watching movies, sleeping. An accomplished photographer, Virts helped make an IMAX movie while in space! (View some photos here.)

One of the funniest stories is how Terry became hairstylist to crew mate, Samantha Chirtoforetti, an Italian celebrity astronaut. Of all the skills Virt had to acquire, he says this ranked as one of the most “nerve-racking”.

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The chapter: “Space Tourism: What You Need To Know Before Signing Up” caught my interest. (Tip: Take the meds.) As a life-long space enthusiast , I always wished I had the Right Stuff to shuttle up, up and away.

In the final chapters, Terry reflects on how space exploration has profoundly changed his worldview. And soul. These essays were among my favorite. 

“Are We Alone? Is there a God”

“What Does It All Mean?” 

“…it was pretty obvious from my vantage point in space that there was no reason for the conflicts we have {on Earth}…We are all crew members on this spaceship, and we may as well get along and work together.

Just as Virts was finishing the manuscript, COVID-19 hit our country. His last chapter, “Isolation: Better on Earth or in Space?” offers advice on quarantining with humor and grace. This from a man who spent 200 days on the International Space Station.

With all the unrest here on Earth, outer space is looking pretty attractive right now.  While we won’t get the chance to escape Earth’s gravity any time soon, Virts’ entertaining book offers us a vicarious thrill. 

What out-of-this-world book do you recommend?

Art Can Save Us

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Thank you fellow artists, writers, bloggers, educators, dancers, poets, philosophers, musicians, homeschoolers, trauma survivors, family and friends, near and far for your virtual hugs, kind words, and listening ears.

Thank you for finding creative ways of connection during this Corona pandemic. Thank you for sharing your art and spreading light and hope to others.

I’m still in survival mode, trying to get my bearings. Absorbing unwelcome changes. Surrendering to uncertainty.

In times of crisis, the great poets and writers can offer us solace and momentum.

I leave you the words of W.B. Yeats, from The Celtic Twilight(1893), a lyrical tribute to Irish folklore.

Please let me know how you are doing.

 

I have desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world…

let-us-go-forth-the-tellers-of-tales-and-seize-whatever-prey

 

 

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