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QUINTESSENCE

Settling Into One's Life


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

I assure you my theme as the year ends is not old age and oblivion, but this idea of settling into one's life - having built the house to build it, and having done so, resting in its shadow a part of all that lives and occupies the geography of personal space and time. Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful: observations both detached and intimate, crisp exploratory writings about what it means to at last see one's life whole, an organic, evolving, theme of the self. One of the important passages of the New Year for me is checking in with my own evolving self. How have I fared in pursuit of my goals? How have I absorbed the unpredictable, the shift of borders, edged a toe through limitations? Have I learned anything?

Oliver writes perceptively of human endeavor as a construct, a shelter for creative thought. She stands before a cabin in the woods she hand-built, a private room for writing which in time became a little-used potting shed. She realizes she built the cabin not for writing, not for thought, but for the sake of building. The work done, she can lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies. She becomes aware her presence lies in nature, not in her construct. Oliver points out that it is instinctive to examine life, ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past. We view ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, but also are stricken by the secret wish to be beyond all that. Oliver concludes wryly, You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul. That worrier.

As this year comes to its rapid close, I find myself taking stock of my "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. All these organic symbols of my life, of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of life, have I lived up to my own soul's expectations? More importantly, have I lived strong and true within the essential principles as nature would have them? My determination for this year end is simple - examine that which is foolish. Where am I following the blueprint of a construct, not a life? Where lies the potting-shed within the palace, the truth of lying down, now, upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half asleep. To find the sunspot of life, not travel lost in the work of working at it.
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