I Don't Want to be Demure or Respectable
by: Mary Oliver
I don't want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can't hear them,
How the river can't wait to get to the ocean and
the sky, it's been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn't matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Bohme saw on the kitchen pot
was missed by everyone else in the house.
Maybe the fire in my lashes is a reflection of that.
Why do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me
Why am I always going anywhere, instead of
Listen to me or not, it hardly matters.
I'm not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I'm just chattering.
This poem perplexes me a little. At the end of it, Oliver admits that she's just "chattering." The ideas and images sort of bang up against each other, line after line. The river traveling to the ocean, the fire blazing in the eyelashes, and so many thoughts bouncing around in her head/poem, going anywhere instead of somewhere, that it's driving her crazy.
And, of course, there's the reference to Jakob Bohme, a German mystic. As a child, Bohme had a vision of a mysterious pot of gold. Later, he came up with a cosmology in which he saw the universe as alchemy, a seething pot that refined all the base metals into gold. "Chatter" into something holy.
Today is Friday the 13th. I try not to be a superstitious person, and, yet, I walked through this day lightly, avoiding any possibility of bad luck or misfortune. I didn't do anything unusual. Tried to stick to routine tasks and experiences. I worked at the library. Screened a documentary about the author James Baldwin. Updated my syllabi for the start of the semester next week. Got Taco Bell for dinner. Took my puppy for a long walk when I got home. Ate. Watched some TV.
Like I said, the name of the game today was normal. Boring, even.
There are a couple ways of viewing the universe, I suppose. If the universe is random, ruled by chance and chaos, then there is no such thing luck, good or bad. Shit just happens. If it is ruled by intelligent design, then there is also no such things as luck, either. Because everything that happens has a purpose. Shit matters.
I am a shit-matters person. I may not understand why shit matters, but I have faith that it does. And that God takes all the shit that happens and turns it into gold somehow. Because, if that isn't true, and everything is just random happenstance, then I might as well become a Republican, tell the next homeless person I see to get a job, and embrace my white male privilege. That's playing it safe, or, in Oliver's words, being "demure or respectable."
But shit matters. It does. Being demure and respectable, I would miss everything that is important in the universe. Kindness and mercy. Little stones singing. Sunrises. Green comets in the sky. Forgiveness and compassion. Long evening shadows. My son's laugh. Grief and joy. Wisdom and foolishness.
That's it. Saint Marty is done chattering for the night.
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