Poem for a Sunday Morning

THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.


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You do not have to be good

In memory of poet Mary Oliver, who died one year ago today, I offer a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

flying_canada_geese

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

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 your 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.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

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 your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

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.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

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.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced my own deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied ‘stuckness’ by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including, and perhaps especially the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do, and began”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


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The Poetry of Management

As I set out to plan my Management 302 curriculum for the fall 2019 semester, I felt an urgency to treat the class as if it could as easily be taught in a humanities curriculum as in a business school.

Management 302 is a required course for all non-management majors. That is to say, it is the one opportunity in the undergraduate business curriculum for future accounting, finance, marketing and supply-chain professionals to engage exclusively with the subject of the human experience at work.

We look at individual motivation, personality and values. We explore team and relationship dynamics. We encounter leadership, emotional intelligence, culture and change. All of this in an effort to wake students up to the truth that the professional experience is only fractionally about one’s professional competency and much more broadly about one’s capacity for self-awareness, communication and adaptability.

You can imagine, then, why I always feel a sense of urgency in preparing for this class. Given a scant 2 hours a week over just 3 months to make the point, I have to be highly strategic in creating an experience that will outlive the classroom long into each student’s career.

Key to the effort this time around was my choice to operationalize my passion for poetry and use it to lead off each class session. I researched and selected a poem that was relevant to that week’s subject matter, recited it first thing and then asked the students to openly reflect on its application to our material.

I did not anticipate the usefulness of this approach, not only in helping us access the course material but in helping us to access a group-wide reservoir of empathy and insight. As poetry has the capacity to do, it changed the tone and depth of our conversations, it lifted my energy and purpose as an instructor and it still allowed us to maintain the necessary structure around what was still a discussion rooted in the needs of effective business operations.

Below is the poem I chose to kick-off the semester. Introducing the class overall and our initial subject of organizational effectiveness, my intent was to immediately jar my students from the comforts of the provable into the abstraction that is the primary reality of any human life.



The World I Live In
{Mary Oliver}

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

I Happened To Be Standing
{Mary Oliver}

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.


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Hints of Gladness

That my daily writing sometimes elicits a positive comment or an appreciative mention makes me feel great. That once in a while, someone “likes” or shares my words is a kind reminder that a hand is holding the other tin can at the end of this string. I love knowing that you are there. I appreciate you for your kind attention.

And I do not do it for you. I do it for me.

My writing lets me know what I’m thinking and, more personally, what I need. I do not write to share expertise or “know how” though sometimes I find myself with one foot caught in that trap. I write because I trust that what is longing to be expressed are my own questions – a prelude to my own wisdom – seeking to come to my aid.

When I wrote yesterday about being a source instead of a resource, I was reminding myself to reassert my self-authorship, that only I get to decide how much of my creativity, energy and commitment to share. No one can do that for me. No one is waiting for me to shoot up an eager hand. No one is waiting to pick me.

In short order I came across yet another of Mary Oliver’s beautiful messages of reassurance and possibility. Here, she takes us into the forest to listen and then to notice how the trees encourage us to follow their example, to ease ourselves into being ourselves, our shining, light-filled selves.

I needed that today. Maybe you do, too.


When I Am Among the Trees
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Poem for a Sunday Morning

A Dream of Trees
{Mary Oliver}

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me that still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I wish it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?


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Whole People / Whole Lives

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.


One of the gifts of a long relationship, in this case I am thinking of my 24 years of marriage but other, even longer friendships also come to mind, is that you learn how to stand with others in both the dark and the light.

As I think about this gift of learning to accept and be present to the fullness and wholeness of life – as opposed to just the summery, shimmery goodness of it – I think about my client organizations and all of the workplaces I have been privileged to be a part of through the years.

And I recognize that some places, some leaders, understand and embrace this wholeness much more truthfully and comfortably than others. That is to say, they acknowledge, accept and expect that whole people with whole lives walk through the front door every day. Those whole lives consist, of course, of pain and loss and fear and uncertainty just as much – and sometimes even more – than they consist of joy and openness and possibility and achievement.

This is obvious to us when we stop and think about it, obvious when the words are typed onto the page. But in the moment, in workplaces that are so often curated to be POSITIVE and CREATIVE and to achieve SUCCESS, it is too easy to forget. It is too easy to send the message – out of our own discomfort with other’s pain – that those less popular feelings of suffering and loss are to be left at home or in the parking lot. It is too easy to send the message that those feelings, the feelings of whole and full human lives, are not welcome under the bright lights of the workplace.

We might begin to counteract this by simply saying to ourselves, as we drive to work each day, or as we stride across the threshold: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Maybe
by Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.


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An Admonition

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

{Mary Oliver}


It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine feeling whimsical without also having a deep reservoir of personal responsibility.

Whimsy feels like freedom. A whimsical person is less interested in the judgments and criticisms of others and more concerned with seizing the present moment and making out of it what she can. That would, most often, mean to take what is and happily question, examine and play with the possibility of what it might become.

Personal responsibility is the best kind of maturity. It is to be the author of one’s own life. It does not require the validation of others, especially authority figures, though it gladly welcomes their support and acknowledgment of positive contributions made. Mostly it welcomes their willing efforts to knock down the roadblocks that prevent the exploration of new frontiers.

So many modern workplaces are starving from a lack of whimsy and responsibility, or in the language of business, “creativity” and “ownership.”

A whimsical person, a person who is responsible to him or herself through their commitment to self-authorship (see Do Your Work) does not choose to belong to an environment in which he or she will be led by those who do not demonstrate that same kind of commitment.

The whimsical, self-authoring employee sniffs out paternalism and the narcissistic impulses that feed its compulsion for hierarchy, rigidity and control. Like so many wild animals sensing and fleeing a coming storm, they are long gone before being lashed by what can be avoided.

The modern organization, then, has to reconcile itself to the truth that whimsy (creativity) and responsibility (ownership) will only exist if its leaders model and cultivate them in the most authentic manner possible. Leaders must be prepared for and promoted into positions of greater influence based on personal demonstrations of creative thought and the integrity of self-authorship.

The degree to which this is true of the leader is the degree to which it is possible for the team.