What is prayer? For most of us, the word evokes a dutiful disciple in church. Hands folded, head bowed in reverent silence, the praying man asks for guidance as glorious light streams through stained glass and illuminates the pews. The daybreak strikes him as a benediction, cleansing his spirit of yesterday’s sorrows so today can begin anew. Through prayer, he makes contact with a an endlessly wise, boundlessly benevolent source. And when he opens his eyes, he and his world appear reborn.
Men have been praying for millennia. Some pray for forgiveness; others pray for help. Some pray to express awe and wonderment; others to simply give thanks for the bountiful blessings bestowed upon us. Some pray to sanctify a part of their ordinary day-to-day routine— as Christians say grace before every meal or Muslims pray five times a day— while others reserve prayer for the out-of-the-ordinary. A panicked middle of the night phone call from the E.R. A devastating natural disaster. A terminal diagnosis. Even the most skeptical atheists among us have found ourselves humbled by calamity and crisis, kneeling on the ground and begging a god we didn’t quite believe in for mercy and guidance.
For Mary Oliver, large-hearted lover of books and devout disciple in the denomination of paying attention, prayer is a way not to manifest her own yearnings but to align herself with her highest principles and values. In recent years, Oprah’s endorsement of New Age notions of manifestation like the “secret” has popularized the idea of prayer as a magical means of wish-fulfillment: rub the magic lamp and unleash an all-powerful being whose one purpose is to make manifest your every desire. Prayer has become a transaction, the Universe, our endless mail order catalog— all we have to do is step up to the register and submit our order. More often than not, our nightly prayers are a demanding list of “I want’s” rather than an appreciative inventory of wonder-struck “thank you’s.”
But for Oliver, prayer is not where we commune with a higher being to get something— it’s where we commune with our higher selves. In her form of prayer, she asks one thing: how can I best contribute my own small portion of beauty to my broken world? At the heart of her prayers is not “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I serve?” Enchanted by the grandeur of the natural world, she worships in the temple of Provincetown, breathing in the intoxicating smell of violets and standing in awe at how the pristine landscape eternally renews itself:
“Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.”
And in a moment of delightful humility, she utters a prayer we should all adopt as a personal mantra:
“May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”
In this endearing excerpt from her altogether lovely essay collection Upstream, Oliver reminds us sacredness isn’t confined to church. The most ordinary act— a summer stroll through a dew-drenched morning, a New England sunrise— can become an occasion for contemplation and prayer. Oliver argues we pray any time we act with intention and whole-hearted presence, any time we make a deliberate effort to reconnect with our best selves. Perhaps the world would be better, she suggests, if we prayed not for things but for the ability to embody our highest values.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else. In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books. In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self.
Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm. Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls. Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome. By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:
“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession. For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death. In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:
“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.
I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”
“I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”
In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness. Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love. Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell. And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:
“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”
In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:
“You must not ever stop being whimsical.
And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”
What makes a life worthwhile? Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia. But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.
“I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”
In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know). Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays. Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life. What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider. But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.
In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life. In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life. She writes:
“It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”
Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own. Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world. But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call. In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones. Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought. In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.
Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior. “What am I going to wear today?” “I need to pick up the laundry!” “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!” From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another. Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future. But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:
“But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”
In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:
“I am, myself, three selves at least. To begin with, there is the child I was. Certainly I am not that child anymore! Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress. It has not vanished. Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams. It is not gone, not by a long shot. It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”
According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:
“And there is the attentive, social self. This is the smiler and the doorkeeper. This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met. It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation. It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.
The clock! That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly! How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily! Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish! The clock is still ticking. All its vistas are just so broad—are regular. (Notice that word.) Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought. The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself. Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day. (Notice that word also.)”
Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves. In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self. Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating. For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche.
Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.” While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity. This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary:
“In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.”
In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse. Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us.
But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear. To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air. Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular. To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up:
“Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place. Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration. A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example. Also, it is enough to tell them. Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.”
Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:
“Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.”
Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning. Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.” With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:
“The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”