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Thoughts On Settling Into Life

Season's greetings, friends. I'd like to share with you part of a post from December 30, 2011. This essay was simply about taking stock - throughout life - of both our intentions and our accomplishments. Do they match up? Did we complete the goals set for ourselves? Are we living and loving and giving as we intend to? Poet Mary Oliver's beautiful words from "Winter Hours" set the tone for this reflection, and I invite you to join me again as 2014 draws to a close and we look forward to a new year.

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

Settling into one's life - having built the house to build it and having done so, resting in its shadow - marks a passage. A journey toward seeing oneself as a part of all that lives, all that occupies the geography of the most personal space and time. Mary Oliver's essays in "Winter Hours" are thoughtful; her observations crisp and intimate. Exploratory writings about what it means to see one's life whole - an organic evolving theme of the self. For me, one of the important tasks of the new year is taking stock. How have I fared in pursuit of my goals? Have I absorbed the unpredictable, the shift in borders, edged a toe through limitations? Have I learned anything?

Oliver perceptively writes of human endeavor as a construct, a kind of shelter for creative thought. She stands before a cabin in the woods she has hand-built, a private room for writing, which in time has become a little-used potting shed. She realizes in retrospect she built the cabin not for writing, not for deep thought, but for the sake of building. The work done, she will lie in its humble shade among the blue butterflies, aware her presence lies within nature, not in her construct. Oliver points out that it is instinctive to examine life; to ponder what makes things work, what causes one thing to nurture another, create the future out of the past. Faced with mortality, we view ourselves as part of the vast natural interchange of what lives and dies, but hold the secret wish to exist beyond all that. Oliver observes, "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 am taking stock of my "constructs." Family, work, home, friendships. All these organic symbols of the living I have done. Are they worthy of the sacredness of life, have I lived up to my soul's expectations? More importantly, have I lived strong and true within the essential principles, as nature would have them? My determination is simple: examine what is foolish. Where am I following the blueprint of a construct but not a life? Where is the potting shed within the palace?

Lie down, now, upon the earth like anything heavy and happy and full of sunlight and half asleep. Find the sunspot of life, lest we travel lost in the work of working at it.
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