"Instructions for life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." - Mary Oliver

I join all religiously sensitive people with poetic hearts in mourning Pulitzer Rise winning poet Mary Oliver who passed away Jan. 17, 2019, just two days ago. Her poems resonate with almost everyone who is drawn to spiritual writing and art.

These words from her poem "Sometimes" remind me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's concept of "radical amazement":

Instructions for life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Heschel explained a similar sentiment in this way, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal.... To be spiritual is to be amazed.” When we lose the ability to experience wonder and to praise God for creation, we need to take a step back and "pay attention" as Oliver says. If we are aware of the complexity of creation, the miracle of life, and the raw beauty in nature, we can then learn to have gratitude each and every day.

In Jewish tradition we express this through the first prayer said every morning upon waking,

"I am grateful to You, living and enduring King, for you returned my soul to me in compassion, great is your faithfulness."

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ
According to tradition, the soul leaves the body (but remains tethered to us) while we sleep and goes on a spiritual journey. When we die, that tether breaks and our soul becomes permanently disconnected from our body. Because this nighttime journey of the soul involves our souls leaving our bodies, we thank God for being alive each morning.

Being alive each morning is something that we might not be astonished about unless we stop to think about it. Likewise, there are small miracles and guidance from God around us every day that we don't notice until we pay attention.

Here is another poem from Mary Oliver, this one called "Morning Peom."

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches—
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted

islands of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead—
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging—

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted—

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

In this poem, Oliver expresses the joy that the soul experiences from witnessing the natural world in its glory. For people who are naturally happy every morning, this is effortless. For those who are naturally melancholic, the morning and its natural beauty can lift one's mood because of the change from darkness to light. I'm definitely in the category of the more melancholic type. I certainly don't wake up in the morning naturally happy. But one thing is for sure--if I was unhappy the night before, the sunlight in the morning, fresh air on my face, and looking at the natural world always makes me feel a little better.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines in all of the Tanach because I relate so much to it.  It is also said as part of Jewish liturgy every morning:  Tehillim (Psalm) 30:5 "weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי;וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה

The books shown below contain the quoted texts I have used in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking on one of the links, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. The world has lost a beautiful soul in Mary Oliver. May we all learn from her insights and may her memory be for a blessing.