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QUINTESSENCE

Settling Into Life

Cottage in the Faroe Islands
I don't think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered - I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. Planks on the beach rippled and salt-soaked. Pieces of piling, full of the tunnels of shipworm. In the woods, fallen branches of oak, of maple, of the dear, wind-worn pines. They lie on the ground and do nothing. They are travelers on the way to oblivion... Call it Rest. I sit on one of the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half-asleep.
- from "Winter Hours," Mary Oliver

This idea of settling into one's life.

Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful observations, both detached and intimate, marked by crisp exploratory writings that etch what it means to grasp one's life whole; as an organic, evolving theme of the self. Oliver writes perceptively of human endeavor as a construct - a shelter for creative thought and action.

She stands before a cabin in the woods she hand-built; a private room for writing, which in time has devolved into a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for writing as she believed, not for thought, but for the sake of building. The task complete, she can lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, making use of it or not. Her presence lies in nature, she tells us, not in her construct.

Oliver points out it is instinctive to examine life; to ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another. This linking of ideas and experiences creates the future out of the past. We understand ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, yet are stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Thus, we build. Oliver concludes wryly, You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier.

To have "built the house." To sit quiet in contemplation in its shadow, a part of all that lives and occupies the geography of space and time.

As this year comes to its close, I find myself taking stock of my own "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. These complex symbols of life, of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of living? Have I lived up to my soul's expectations? Have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? Are there places where am I following the blueprints of a construct, and not a life?

We travel, lost in the work of working at living. Yet we must all find within ourselves the potting-shed within the palace, and rest upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, full of sunlight, and half asleep. In the sunspot of what we have made.

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