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Paddling with Mary Oliver

For much of my life I wasn't a fan of poetry. I found it either to be abstract or syrupy. It was on a kayak trip to the Tongass Wilderness, in southeastern Alaska, that my heart, mind and imagination were changed.


The 10 day kayak trip was in the pristine wilderness of the 17 million acre Tongass. Our small group of paddlers kayaked from island to island. The temperature was in the 50's and each day it rained. A lot. It was (and is) a primal place. The largest in-tact temperate rainforest in North America.


Such a place of expansive beauty tempered by mist, creates a space for the mystic in each of us, to awaken. So it was, each morning, our guide, Kurt, welcomed the day by reciting a poem. The poems he chose and the way he recited each, was like no poem I had ever heard. Each poem reflected the place we paddled and came from a deep place within Kurt ,and touched a deep place within me.


Over those 10 days I heard several poets, yet the one who pierced my soul most deeply, was Mary Oliver. I had never heard of her. Her poems were not abstract or syrupy. Rather they reflected what she saw and invited me to see in a new way too.


Mary Oliver, who died a few years ago, well into her eighties, wrote most of her poems from her home along the beaches and tidal ponds in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the tip of Cape Cod meets the open ocean. Her poems reflect her capacity to be present, to be open, to notice what is going on within and around her.


I think this invitation to be present, open and to notice, is the foundation for each person's spiritual journey. However you define or don't define your spiritual life, when we seek to be present, to be open, to notice, then we are on an adventure that promises to help us experience life in a deeper and more profound way.


And so it was, in the midst of the Tongass, with the words of Mary Oliver as my companion, that the mystic within me was awakened, encouraged, blessed. Listen to her words, in this poem:


'The Messenger'

My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird— equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.


~ “Messenger” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst


Pray and Paddle on Lake Cochichewick


On July 9th, several of us will gather for a Pray and Paddle on Lake Cochichewick. We will paddle with a poem by Mary Oliver. (So many great poems to choose from). On the water, we will follow the way of the poet. We will seek to be present, to be open and to notice. And, when we do so, we will be changed. We will be blessed.


With you on the journey. ~ Kent Harrop


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