This morning I took my younger daughter to her swim lessons at the lake we’ve been going to for I think seven summers now. She’s been doing these lessons for the past two weeks, but today was the first time I took her. Usually, in past summers, it was me taking my girls to these swim lessons, and so today I planned to approach it antisocially as I have been doing the past couple of years, which involved sitting way over to the side at these picnic tables and reading The New Yorker or whatever book I would be distractedly managing to work through the entire summer. But when I got there today I noticed that the picnic tables were not shaded as they usually were, but blazingly right in the sun. This is not the kind of day to be messing with sun. I took my magazine over to the shaded benches where all the other moms were talking about things their kids said and soccer tryouts and that sort of thing and I tried to read in my usual distracted way. I squinted way out at the dock where my daughter was practicing dives and I could just make her out.
Then I noticed someone sitting all alone at one of the picnic tables the way I used to do, not even minding the sun, and reading a book. I was immediately interested. Then I realized that I actually knew this woman, that we had talked over the years, mostly at picnic tables at this very lake, and I headed over there. As I approached I saw the name Mary Oliver on the book she was reading and I knew then that I was heading for something good.
The book was called A Poetry Handbook, and in it Mary Oliver kind of guides readers on how to write poetry, but in such a beautiful and graceful way, as she can’t help doing. And so this woman and I talked about Mary Oliver and poetry and Mary Oliver poems and writing in general (she too is a writer) and it was then that I began to realize that the knotted feeling in my stomach that I had brought to the lake with me was slowly unknotting. I have noticed something like this happening to me a couple times before in the past year, but the first time was last summer where at this huge retrospective Picasso exhibit at the Met, I literally felt something just lift up and out of my body. I mean, not to get all clichéd and everything, but it was a feeling of transcendence. When we got through the Picasso exhibit, I told my friend Alisa that I needed to go back to the beginning and go through it again, and so she went off to look at medieval paintings, and I lingered there, noticing, always noticing, the lightness that had come over me.
And so here at the lake, talking about the Mary Oliver book, it was happening again. I know that I’ve said this many times before, and even here, but there’s that line from Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” that I can’t stop thinking about: “I don't know exactly what a prayer is/I do know how to pay attention…” Which, exactly.
After a while of talking, our kids came out of the lake, and I said to this woman, this almost friend of mine, Hey, do you want to get together sometime? My question kind of took us both by surprise, and she said, Sure, that would be great. Before I left, she told me to look for this other Mary Oliver poem that I didn’t know called “Wild Geese.” I think you’ll like it, she said.
Here’s how it ends:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.