Mary Oliver asked that I meet her on the footbridge over the creek in the east garden before she checks into her suite. I sense a bit of uncertainty as is sometimes common with those who have suffered from a long illness. As I approach her, she turns to face me.
“Good morning Ms Oliver. May I address you as Mary?”
“Yes. Please do, Mr…?”
“My name is Socrates Black, but please call me Socrates. Welcome to the Inn Of Inspiration. I am the Gate Keeper and the one who invited you here. I know you have many questions and I will do my best to answer all of them in time.”
“I thought I was cured of the cancer. The last thing I remember was lying in my bed. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. My lungs burned. When I opened my eyes again I was here in this beautiful place of nature. Is this heaven Socrates?”
“No Mary. There is no heaven or hell in actuality. They exist only metaphorically. The energy that is you, your life, to use the term loosely, is still alive in this place of transition.”
“For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then the butterfly rose, weightless, in the wind. ‘Don’t love your life too much,’ it said, and vanished into the world. Am I now a part of that world? Did I love my life too much?”
“Yes Mary. You have always been and always will be a part of that and this world. They are different and the same as are you. As far as your second question, the answer is no. You inspire in others the ability to love their lives and themselves more. In the end we all must learn to let go.”
“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”
“You not only when out into the world. You created worlds. You saw the world with poetic eyes and then translated that vision into words to assist others to see the world differently, with different eyes.”
“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done.”
“There is nothing else my dear poetess. So many people miss so much because they do not pay attention. They are too busy being busy with their lives to notice the fragile leaf or pattern of the butterfly’s wing”
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work is it not Socrates.”
“Yes it is Mary.”
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
“You partake in this world much more than most human inhabitants Mary. You commune with the life of this world be that life a bear, a butterfly, a duck, or a grasshopper. You reach out to them with your life’s spirit, they receive you and give back to you themselves.”
“The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.”
“Unfortunately for most people it takes that long before they come into their own being. They glide along life’s surfaces never choosing to go deeper into the world of which we all are an integral part. I remember the last stanza from your poem The Journey which I read during my time at Esalen and which became a personal guide in my own life. ‘And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do — determined to save the only life you could save.’”
“You read my poetry Socrates?”
“Yes, Mary. Your words are a gift to the world. I am honored to say I have read most of your body of work and I look forward to reading the poetry you create and inspire here. In fact, I would like you to give a reading for the guests some evening. Stanley Kunitz, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson and many more have been awaiting your arrival. They know I extended you an invitation.”
“Are you a poet Socrates?”
“Yes Mary I am. At least I think of myself as more of a poet than an essayist. I do both. I think the poet requires a gentle spirit which we both share. The poet writes not to influence the reader, although that is often the end result, but simple to share a part of his/her vision and experience of the world.”
“I feel the same Socrates, but If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me? Perhaps in either case you will share your words with me someday?”
“It will be my pleasure to share my poetry with you Mary. There is still much we can learn from one another no matter how similar our natures are. I find, and perhaps you do also, that the creative process for the poet or any creative person requires an amount of solitude that the non creative person does not understand. I want to assure you my dear lady, your time here is truly your own. You will be able to create without outside interruption.”
“Thank you Socrates for inviting me here. In my life so often I am at my desk. It is a silver morning like any other. 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 is so important to the creative individual. There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
“You will find no such individuals here Mary. The air here is rich with the energies of inspiration and creativity.”
“I believe I know myself rather well Socrates and 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.”
“You will find Mary all of the guests here share your view. It is one of the reasons we do not have time in this pastoral place.”
Mary continues her thought. “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.”
“Here at the Inn Mary, all of your external needs are taken care of with just your thoughts. Your imagination replaces, if you wish, the habits of your physical existence. At one time during my life I had an encounter with a patron at the library where I worked. After I assisted her with her book selection, she started looking in her handbag for her car keys. O’ here they are,” she exclaimed. “Just where I always put them. When you reach my age a good habit is better than a fading memory.” For her it was absolutely true. Your transition will take some time, but I believe you will eventually find yourself free of most unnecessary habits.”
“The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition I find are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real. In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us.”
“I completely agree with what your say Mary. Our habits are also teachers. Perhaps the issue here is one of semantics. Here at the Inn you are free of the habits which ruled your physical life. I like the word ceremony or ritual over habit because a ceremony requires attention, while most habits are automatic. At the Inn, the automatic is taken care of for you. You are freer to engage more in the ceremonies supportive of your own creative energies. You asked about my own poetry. Perhaps this simple poem will explain what I mean. ‘The Ritual’ is the title.
the way I step
across the bench,
face the sky,
adjust my hips,
straighten my back,
and breathe deeply.
All to just sit—
to the sea.
“Yes Socrates. I understand. You are a poet. It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things… Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – an empathy – is necessary if the attention is to matter. 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. Ritual is a part of the creative process whereas habits may sometime be a distraction from the creative process. Thank you my new friend.”
“It is my pleasure always Mary, but please tell me now, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life now?”
“O’ Socrates. Only the philosopher poet would ask me that question using my own words. I am still eager to address the world of words – to address the world with words. There is instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.”
“Again. Welcome my poetess. Shall we join the others?”
“Yes, by all means let us do so.”
Book Two of The Gate Keeper Of Inspiration: Chapter Seventeen — Oliver Sacks will be available April 14, 2019.
Cover Art “Aries” by Emilee Petersmark.