“Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy,” she goes on, “and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.”
A few sentences later, she explains: “Thought buds toward radiance.” Imagine the pressure that would build up in a flower that refused to open to the sun. In an observation attributed to Anais Nin, the day inevitably comes when the risk of remaining tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.
Bud and blossom. Being and doing. Contemplation and action. Conception and birth. One thing leads naturally to the other.
I’m guessing, but I imagine one bright day Oliver must have frowned at herself, enjoying a lovely morning on a hillside, doing nothing, while someone, somewhere in the world was suffering. Living with havoc. She mentions something like this, with a hint of guilt at her self-indulgence, in the poem “This Day, and Probably Tomorrow Also” (Red Bird, 2008): “I begin another page, another poem. / . . . While somewhere women are walking out, at two in the morning—/ many miles to find water. / While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.” Hmm.
Okay, so she’s saying, Don’t just sit there, do something. Is that it? But doesn’t that sound, uh, kinda conventional? Especially to meditators and contemplatives, who love to turn that phrase on its head: Don’t just do something, sit there. Ha, ha.
Maybe it’s not either/or, but both/and. A paradox. Sit there AND do something—in particular, whatever seems called for by the sitting. Sit there until the fire of passion, whatever passion smolders deep within the soul, blossoms into flame. “Be ignited, or be gone,” Oliver concludes.
Conceive. Gestate. Go into labor. Give birth. It’s natural. An organic process. It is, in fact, what Mary Oliver does when she sits on a hillside, looking into the shining world.
Some seed takes root, and grows. Thoughts bud. She goes back to her house, puts pen to paper. A poem blossoms. She doesn’t just sit there. She does something—something she’s passionate about. Something uniquely her own. And we’re grateful that she doesn’t just sit and look and listen, but that she writes and publishes too. She has nothing to feel guilty about, after all. Poetry is her response. It is her gift to the world.
What is your gift? What passion burns in your soul? What wants to be born?
Oliver is saying simply: Pay attention. And do something. It will require labor, no doubt, but how else can that which you conceive emerge from within?
I confess, I chose this poem for one of our Lectio Poetica gatherings because it seems as if I, too, have been sitting too long on something that wants to be born. I’m overdue. My soul is crying for me to do something. Don’t just sit there, pretending to listen to your soul while ignoring its pleas. What’s the point of listening, if you don’t act on what you hear?
Egads, what if I’m so attached to contemplation, I cannot bring myself to action?
Maybe that’s why an Eagles song keeps running through my head, sometimes in the middle of the night. An earworm, as they say. It’s from their first studio album in decades, released in 2007. The song is “Do Something:”
“When I feel like giving up, and I’m ready to walk away, in the stillness I can hear a voice inside me say, Do something. Do something. It’s too late for saving face. Don’t just stand there takin’ up space. Why don’t you do something? Do something. It’s not over. No, it’s never too late.”
In the stillness, can you hear the voice inside? What’s it asking of you? Maybe, unlike me, you’re doing too much. Maybe you just need to sit there. If you’re listening, you know. That’s what Lectio Poetica is all about. Join us, if you dare.
—Jay E. Valusek