Poems for the Pandemic (5)

At Blackwater Pond by Mary Oliver

Many of the people I talk with are struggling at the moment with letting go – of our certainties, our plans, our hopes and dreams. For ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet. Letting go of the feeling we have lived with that we can craft our own lives, holding on with our fingertips to the fantasy that we have control over our destinies. I know I am!

But after a burgeoning, blossoming spring and summer when many hoped for a miraculous ‘return to the old normal’, it is now autumn, and the trees are teaching us that we have to let go, to surrender the old life, and be open to the loss that always precedes new life. It has to be done! As someone else famously said: ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’*.

My ‘memories’ on Facebook reminded me of this poem today. It blows me away every time I read it.

“Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars

of light, are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,

the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders

of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is

nameless now. Every year everything I have ever learned

in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side

is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Isn’t it stunning? I love the way she offers those heart-opening beautiful images, and then slips in that immense and profound challenge. Love, then challenge: the wisest of combinations, used throughout time by the wisest of our teachers.

This deep teaching is echoed in the book I’m reading this week: Walter Brueggemann’s latest, ‘Virus as a Summons to Faith’. In it, he brings his Old Testament scholarship to bear on our current times, telling the story of a peoples’ struggles through various challenges, and their repeated remembering and returning to a God who is faithful and loving. (Rowan Williams spoke of this too, in his recent talk.) However you understand those ancient stories, or the God they are in dialogue with, I find it enlivening and encouraging that there is a Bigger Story I can trust in that has stood the test of time, while also evolving to meet us in our different (and in many ways, not so different) times. Maybe it all comes down to a universal truth, trumpeted all around us by the natural world: “to save your life, you must first lose it”.

*Matthew 16:25

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