Tuesday, January 3, 2023

January 3: "The World I Live In," Balance and Order, Angels in My Head

Mary Oliver doesn't believe in an orderly house . . . 

The World I Live In

by:  Mary Oliver

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
     reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that.  And anyway,
     what's wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn't believe what once or
twice I have seen.  I'll just
     tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
     ever, possibly, see one.

I think that most people are forced to live in houses of reasons and proofs.  Having worked in higher education for over 30 years now, I have seen the continual devaluation of things like literature and art and music.  These pursuits are seen as trivial.  Inconsequential.  Useless.

The university where I teach switched to a Gen Ed  versus Liberal Arts curriculum five or six years ago.  Suddenly, I have to do things in my teaching like submit whole stacks of papers and videos of student presentations to some all-powerful committee to provide verifiable "proof" of the utility of the education I'm providing to my students.

Unlike a lot of poets and creatives I know, I'm fairly comfortable with the sciences.  I understand the elegance of a mathematical equation.  Beauty of cell division.  Satisfaction of a working computer algorithm.  I appreciate logic and order.

However, I think that life would be pretty pointless and boring if all we had to worry about was balancing columns and diagnosing bugs in lines of computer code.  I'm know some people can be passionate about things like that.  I had a math professor in college who thought about the permutations and solutions of a Rubik's Cube while he was taking showers.

For me, a day without poetry and music and language is empty.  Business, medicine, physics--these are important and necessary pursuits.  Our world would be a much more difficult place without them.  Those are things that help us to live and survive in a complex universe.  But the question remains:  what are we living and surviving for?

Numbers can tell you how many people live in this world, but they can't make those people feel loved.  Biology can explain, to some extent, brain chemistry, but it can't comfort a person in the throes of grief and depression and mental illness.  Physics can provide better ways of getting from one place to another, but it doesn't guarantee that you'll be welcomed and celebrated once you arrive.

I think that's what Mary Oliver is talking about in today's poem.  Human beings need to believe in the miraculous.  The "maybe."  Life isn't a checkbook with pluses and minuses in a register.  Life needs to rush outside during a snowstorm and flop on the ground to make angels.  It sits on the couch and reads poems to experience breathless awe.  It stands on the lip of the Grand Canyon and feels small, insignificant, and just a tiny bit frightened.

I am at home by myself today.  My son is at school.  My wife is at work.  Every once in a while, I take my puppy out to the backyard to sniff around and do her business.  If the weather forecast is accurate, later this afternoon/evening, snow is going to start falling and continue throughout the night.  I can hear a crow outside my living room window scraping the air with its caws.

The world I'm living in right now is pretty ordered.  Dinner is on the stove.  My alarm is set to remind me to pick up my son from school and my wife from work.  If it snows a great deal tonight, I will send a text message to have my driveway plowed tomorrow morning.  All the columns and rows of my life add up today.

Yet, I always walk around with angels in my head.  Or hopes.  Or graces.  Or maybes.  Call them what you want.  They are the things that astonish me daily.  They make me laugh and weep.  They help me to believe that this gift of a world will somehow survive the Age of Trump, just like it's survived ice ages and plagues and genocides and world wars.  

It's those angels that make me get out of bed every morning, despite any darkness that may be oppressing me at the moment.  New snow.  Crows.  My dog.  Poems.  A favorite song on the radio.  Moonlight in a winter sky.

At the moment, my dog is poised at a window, barking at something outside.  I don't know what.  It could be a squirrel she spied in a tree.  A truck passing down the street.  Wind stirring the bare lilac bushes.  She is always on the lookout.

That's what Saint Marty is talking about today:  being ready to open the door to the next maybe that comes knocking.  

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