Bad news from home. Seems as fitting a time as any to post this column from last summer, when we first saw the paw print.
I don’t have the poem in front of me right now, or I would quote it directly, but I came across it the other day and it has given me a whole mess of perspective right now. The poem is titled “Bear” and it is written by Mary Oliver and included in her new book of poems, “Why I Wake Early.”
In the poem she talks of coming upon a huge track in the woods she walks daily. She stops and laughs at herself, thinking of all the narratives she’s read where someone has come upon a track such as this and how she could torture herself with the outcomes of all those narratives.
Instead, she tells us what those narratives don’t: about how, in the moments immediately after she sees the footprint in the wood that most decidedly portends something disastrous, there is a qualitative difference in the way the light comes through the trees overhead, in the intensity of the color of the flowers at her feet, in the smell of the air that surrounds her.
Oh, I wish I had the poem beside me, so I could quote it verbatim as she has a way with words and images I can only dream of mastering. But I don’t, so you’ll have to find the poem yourself and experience the healing quality of her words.
I think this poem found me, and just at the very moment I needed it. It wasn’t entirely happenstance.
I heard Mary Oliver read her poems for an hour when I was in St. Louis earlier this summer, and I bought her book to use in a worship service at our church upon our return home.
But it was after that, on a day when it may have been sunny outside, but it was definitely cloudy inside, when I opened up the book and read about the bear footprint, and I knew those were the words I needed to read.
You see, my family had come across a bear track: my father’s recent routine physical examination turned up something not so routine. More tests, more waiting, and we still didn’t know what kind of bear we were facing and during that time I kept playing a game of “let’s pretend” with myself: let’s pretend we still don’t know anything, since we don’t really know anything. I told my sister: “take these days as a gift,” meaning, don’t fret until you know what to fret about.
I prepared myself for the worst, though, regardless of how much I tried to pretend.
But Mary Oliver brought me back where I needed to be: neither pretending nor fretting, but simply watching and appreciating the difference in the way everything around me became more … well … MORE.
Ice cream was more soothing, my daughters’ laughter more effusive (and their shrieks more annoying), and, most importantly, my conversations with my parents were more often and more intentional.
We continue to stand in that place near the bear track, waiting for the disaster narrative to play out. In a way, we are all of us—every human being on the face of this earth—standing near one footprint or another on any given day.
But sometimes, we get to see the footprint before the bear and we get to stand in the light more tangible, if only for a moment.
And that has to be enough.