Have you noticed that Mary Oliver includes a lot of questions in her poems? Not in every poem, but in several. For instance this question: “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” (“Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?” in West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems.) The question gives one pause, don’t you think?
I thought at first that Mary was asking herself these questions and therefore we readers can ask them of ourselves. But I wonder if they are coming from an unnamed source as she goes out “among the thorns” and wild roses or touches “the faces of the daisies?”
The poems of Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Rainer Maria Rilke and others were inspiration for the last six-week Writing Life women’s writing circle with the theme of “Living the Questions”.
One of the poems I began the “Living the Questions” circle with was “What to Remember When Waking” in which poet David Whyte asks:
waits in the seed
of you to grow
against a future sky?
Is it waiting
in the fertile sea?
In the trees
beyond the house?
In the life
you can imagine
In the open
on the waiting desk?
At a day-long program with David Whyte at Royal Roads University in Victoria a few years ago with the title of that particular poem as a theme, he asked the full room of participants: “What is the most beautiful and courageous question you can ask yourself right now?”
My question to myself at that time was: “What if I did nothing?” That’s a courageous question I’d say. Rather than another decision, another plan, what if I simply stopped and did nothing? As it turned out, I did stop my usual practices and activities in the late summer of 2015 and since then, I’ve asked myself, now that I have better mobility and a bit more energy: “What would I rather do?”
I’m at an intersection of sorts, thinking and exploring rather than moving, full steam, ahead. At any given intersection, Dawn Markova asks herself four questions to help her navigate “this mysterious journey of the soul”:
What do I love?
What are my inner gifts and talents?
What do I value?
What are the environments that bring out the best in me?
The last question attracted me first. The best in me is brought out in solitude in combination with gathering in a circle with others to share our process and our stories.
Alison Pick answered the questions of several poets in her book Question and Answer. It seems many poets have included questions in their poems: Helen Humphreys, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Patrick Lane, Erin Moure, Louise Gluck, Carol Ann Duffy. Alison answered Mary Oliver’s question at the end of “The Summer Day”: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Alison writes about an ordinary morning in her flannel pajamas making some corrections to a piece of writing. The extraordinary comes in with her observations: “Out in the field, nothing needs changing: the field goes about / the business of dying with perfect belief in the spring.”She ends her poem with: “When the last / change is made I will sit by the blank paper, listening.”
Other poems of Mary Oliver’s to pose questions are “When Did It Happen?” and “A Voice from I Don’t Know Where.” In the latter, she answers questions posed from an unnamed voice.
And you don’t mind living with those questions,
I mean the hard ones, that no one can answer?”
The poet answers: “Actually, they’re the most interesting.”
To support our work with questions in the writing circle, I created a flower essence combination made up of seven flower essences from Raven Essences co-created with Nature by Andrea Mathieson. I chose the essences intuitively from the large selection I have. Among them was Apple Tree which acts like a quiet groundskeeper. It also helps us graciously accept the death of an old cycle. Dandelion is a grounding essence as well, helping us access what we need from hidden sources. It promotes optimism. Iris encourages the rhythms of deep breathing and Yellow Yarrow encourages us to mother ourselves, grounding our roots firmly in the reality of the present moment. Flower essences, as Andrea has pointed out, offer energetic support from Nature, help to maintain stability, grounding and a balanced forward momentum.
While the “waiting shape” may be on the white page at your desk as David Whyte pointed out, it may also be somewhere beyond the desk. As Mary Oliver suggested in her poem “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”: “Fields everywhere invite you into them.”
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!”
Rilke advised being easy on ourselves with our questions. Others have said questions are seeds and when we pose them ourselves, we already know the answer. At some level, we do. I’ve asked myself twenty questions about particular projects and answered all the questions myself.
When it comes to writing, “Questions are open doors,” Laraine Herring says in On Being Stuck. “They move you away from the stagnation of certainty into the openness of wonder. Questions stretch you. They challenge and confound you. They shake you up. Rock your world, shimmy your shins. They propel you to the next place. Answers are not the point of questions unless the answer you find stretches you further and pulls you into even deeper questions. Let the answers you uncover be the scaffolding as you leap from question to question.”
Nanaimo writer Carol Matthews took her questions into several labyrinths and asked her mythological guide, Ariadne, questions as well. Carol studied different versions of the ancient myth of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, and Ariadne, who supplied the thread that guided Theseus out of the labyrinth at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. She writes of her experiences in Questions for Ariadne: The Labyrinth and the End of Times in which she asks questions, faces her fears of aging and realizes understanding comes from reflection and the many gifts of what she calls “immediacy.”
“Living the Questions” is the theme of a one-day circle of writing, connection & renewal I’m offering at Bethlehem Centre in Nanaimo on Saturday, April 8th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A labyrinth walk will be part of the experience.
Participants will have an opportunity for replenishment, an honouring of their voice, and a chance to write what has meaning for them. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned writer, we’ll take our time with the questions we carry and have a look at inspiration from other writers and poets such as the ones I’ve mentioned. A labyrinth walk will offer calm and rebalance with an opportunity to enter with a question and return with an answer. Or as Rainer Maria Rilke advised: “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”