I started writing about ritual last week, but the word that stuck in my mind from that post all week was ‘hungry’. The word would sort of weave in and out of various conversations that I had with different people, linking itself frequently to the word ‘crave’. Sometimes those thoughts or conversations would have to do with actual food cravings, but a few of them talked about a deeper craving for other non-food items, like quiet moments for walking or reading or sitting still in a warm tub.
When I first heard of Mary Oliver’s death, it seemed so surreal because I had just been thinking and talking about her with a friend. We were talking about the ritual of running / walking / hiking outdoors, and how much we crave more of that time when January rolls around. I’ve tried in the past to convert myself to indoor running when the season dictates it, but it never sticks. I thought it was merely a lack of willpower or drive or focus – an inability to move my thoughts beyond the endless, uninspiring 1/11th of a mile loop of track in the gym, or the even duller loop of a treadmill band. But I’m actually pretty good at putting my shoulder into the repetitive or the mundane, getting into my head and out of my body, and pushing through without wimping out.
The conversation helped me highlight a shared love for the act of getting outside in a physical way that opens my brainspace in a completely different way. And it made me wonder if I really love running, or if running is just the vehicle that gives me permission to carve out a slender sliver of time between this important thing and that necessary thing, and stretch it into a new shape that requires so little of me other than my attention and measured breath. Like that time a few years back, when I entered a running store to purchase new shoes, and I insisted that I “wasn’t a runner” before explaining my habits and preferences and she said “but you are a runner”, and so I decided to believe her.
Because if I am a runner, then I must run. I must look at each week and find three or four slivers of time in there, and mark them. I must remember my socks, and an extra apple for fuel. I must balance on the tops of my shoes in a bathroom stall somewhere and change out of my work clothes and into my running uniform. I must tie both shoes because I am a runner, and then I’ll retie one of them on a bench outside the restrooms because it’s tighter or looser than the other. I will drop my things off at my car and I will need to stretch but I’m impatient, and so I’ll just walk briskly for a minute or two, away from the parking lot and the sidewalks and into the trees. I will tell myself that I’ll ease into that first mile at a slower pace and then I’ll ignore that completely because the sun is low in the sky, and there’s a nice breeze, and the daffodils are starting to bloom, and the crunch of the gravel underfoot is like a jolt of power straight into my veins, and I may not look like much of anything to anyone around me, but I know all my own secrets (or most of them), and one is that I’m a runner. Not because I’m fast or strong or coordinated or determined. Only that I’ve crafted a series of rituals that say it is so.
I have long said that running is a form of prayer for me, and I always precede that or follow it with the disclaimer that I don’t know how to pray. But I can speak to gratitude, and it expresses itself in many different places, and most clearly and succinctly as I run. So the idea (and conversation ) about Mary Oliver was (is) that perhaps she is the reason I am a runner. Because I was hungry for movement and skies and borrowed time between the person I give to my work and the person I give to the community and the person I give to my family. Because I was hungry for an outlet for the jumble in my head and my heart, and it could toss and turn and spit itself out in a dozen different forms – not all of them attractive or helpful – or I could push it out in even exhalations of gratitude, a tumble of words coated in the white dust of a running trail and the salt streaks of sweat.
I remember listening to Krista Tippet interviewing Mary Oliver while I was running through the Kennedy Forest area of Forest Park one afternoon, where you come out of the trees higher than the road below, and the prairie flowers are tall and thick and yellow and bee filled, and these lines cut me into two:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.
The words of her poems tell me directly or indirectly to pay attention, and I do. Creating ritual around these slender slivers of time is an act of paying attention, to myself, and to the world.
A few favorites I carry with me on my runs:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.