On September 10, 1935, lesbian poet Mary Oliver was born. Exactly one year later, my friend Larry Sonner entered the world. On September 10, 2019, my precious nephew Oliver took his first breath. A poet I never met, now dead, whose tender wisdom breaks open my heart and connects me with life, who teaches that both poetry and the beauty of the world can save us. A tender man, whose deep friendship forever changed my life, who died last year from covid and whose gentle voice still finds me when I’m sitting quietly on my porch, listening to birdsong, sipping coffee. A fierce and fantastic toddler, whose laughter opens new worlds, who bursts forth in wondrous delight at trees, and dirt, and pear juice dripping down his chin.
Mary wrote, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Larry tacked these words above his desk. Oliver does not know, but Knows, and lives them.
Joanna Macy calls this “Deep Time” work, the holy labor of reconnecting with ancestors and future beings, to guide and inspire and orient and enliven us.
Two years ago, when my sister went into labor, I drove to their town to be with my two nieces, to care and tend and wait to welcome this life. My younger niece, then a few months shy of four, was and is an empath. She feels, deeply. She knows, deeply. She is intuitive and caring and deeply connected to the complex currents within and around her. Norah could feel how unsteady, uncertain, in flux her world was. Every rhythm and routine, disrupted. A portal, opening, life never to be the same again. For days surrounding Oliver’s birth, Norah would cycle through a call and response litany.
“Mama ok?” she’d ask, staring into my eyes.
“Mama’s ok, sweetheart.”
“Arlo ok?” using the name they’d been calling that becoming-life in utero.
“Arlo’s ok! He’s so lucky to have you as a big sister.”
“Daddy’s ok. He’s with mama and Arlo.”
“Annie ok?” using the name given me by my first niece, when she started to talk.
“Annie’s ok. I’m so glad to be here with you.”
And then, my turn.
She’d nod, eyes wide with bravery and fear, sometimes shimmering excitement, sometimes glistening with tears.
Then, seconds or minutes or hours later, the litany would begin again.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Norah, and finding myself wanting to cycle through this litany. Everything is unsteady, uncertain, in flux. So much is not ok, on so many scales. So much is crumbling, in rupture. It seems everyone I know–even those most skilled and practiced in grounding, adapting, moving with wisdom, and cultivating resilience–are exhausted, and grieving, and unmoored, and putting a lot into being ok-enough.
During these days that hold so much heaviness, and holiness too, Rabbi Julia Watts-Belser has been asking, “How do we stay alive to the sweetness of the world, while staying present to the heartache?” By holding beauty gently, without pushing aside grief, she suggests. Life is restored, through this both/and.
Poet Andrea Gibson offers this poem, which I find myself sharing with a lot of people I love:
“A difficult life is not less
worth living than a gentle one.
Joy is simply easier to carry
than sorrow. And your heart
could lift a city from how long
you’ve spent holding what’s been
nearly impossible to hold.
This world needs those
who know how to do that.
Those who could find a tunnel
that has no light at the end of it,
and hold it up like a telescope
to know the darkness
also contains truths that could
bring the light to its knees.
Grief astronomer, adjust the lens,
look close, tell us what you see.”
All week I’ve been returning to this Hubble telescope image of the Pillars of Creation. The Pillars are six light-years across; it would take light six years to travel across them. It takes light eight minutes to get from the sun to the Earth. This scale of possibility is beyond my comprehension. “Scale matters in the universe, and while on small scales things are collapsing, on large scales they are expanding,” writes Chanda Prescod-Weinstien, Black feminist cosmologist, particle physicist, and professor of astronomy. The Pillars of Creation is a stellar nursery–where stars are born. I remember many years ago learning that when we look into the night sky, we are looking into the past. I had also learned, wrongly, that the stars we can see from Earth are dead. The Milky Way has something like 200 billion stars in it, most of them burning, right now, alive. Billions of stars, in this galaxy alone, not merely a thing of the past, but emerging, still, now.
Grief astronomer, adjust the lens, look close, tell us what you see. Nothing ok, but our hearts aching from sweetness, as well as sorrow. Nothing ok, but beauty held gently alongside grief. Nothing ok, but traditions of paying attention, being astonished by, and telling about beauty, tenderness, generosity, possibility passed down and around, put into practice, returned to and recreated through Deep Time work. Nothing is ok, but stars are still being born.
Rev. Anna Blaedel is theologian-in-residence at enfleshed. They bring an attentiveness to the intersections of academic, activist, and ecclesial engagement. Anna nourishes students through campus ministry for the University of Iowa Wesley Center and is enrolled in a PhD program in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division.