Sunday begins the celebration of Hanukkah, a series of holy days that spring from a mystery. How did a small amount of sacred oil sustain the menorah in the temple for eight days (allowing just enough time to make a fresh amount of oil) when it should have only lasted for one day? Like the  bush Moses encountered in the wilderness, burning and burning without being consumed, there is no answer except that, somehow, God was there.

Mysteries are all around us. Some things, cancer disappearing overnight, a check in the mail for exactly the right amount on a critical day, missing an oncoming truck may truly defy explanations - can even be called miracles. But even those things we think we understand are mysterious. Because beneath every answer is another question. After what?, when? and how? there sits a why?.

In this poem by Mary Oliver, we are encouraged not to put too much stock in answers. They keep us from seeing what is truly amazing. Grass turns into flesh and bone. Gravity, though strong enough to tame water and rock, cannot keep our thoughts from the sky. The briefest touch with a stranger creates a bond that lasts forever. These, and many more wonders that we daily encounter, deserve our awe, our bug-eyed call to look. They cause us to laugh in astonishment with those of like mind and together bow our heads.  

Mysteries, Yes
Mary Oliver
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
  to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
  mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
  in allegiance with gravity
    while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
  will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
  scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
  who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
  "Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
  and bow their heads.

Evidence, Beacon Press, 2009
Bicycle and Fruit by Montse Pares Farre (Spanish painter)

Perhaps it's been hard to get to the blog this summer because it is the one season of the year when I cheerfully let my mind go on vacation and lean into the sensory experiences that summer so adamantly invites. It's the weather, or the orchard, or the scenery that orders my day, not my list of things to accomplish. Like a child who dashes cheerfully around the yard, seeking to still a moving butterly, I'm out to grab those things that only summer affords. 

There's fresh basil, and zucchinis (next week a yummy recipe for chocolate chip zucchini cake!) and cucumbers so crisp they deserve a category all to themselves. What's ripe now? Is it blueberries or cherries or watermelon? When will the sweet corn finally arrive on the farmstands and the orchard down the road open its barn doors with bushels of sweet peaches, one large enough to share over breakfast, topped with yogurt and granola?

It's a season where distractability can be a virtue. Driving by a field of zinnias on the way to DC reminds me to grab a friend and pick a bouquet at a neighboring farm.  Hot summer afternoons insist that I grab a tube and head to the Yellow Breeches to cool off on a natural "Lazy River" that includes its own small rapids. And should I mention ice cream stands?

I remind my analytical brain (closely connected to my type A self) which gets a bit put out during the summer, that it won't be long until the crisp autumn air will just as persistently encourage me to dig into the book pile that's been collecting dust since June, and get back to the blog in a "serious" way. But until then, the rest of me is enjoying thinking of nothing, accepting what is, indulging my happy tongue. 

Mary Oliver

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

Another poem of Oliver's, The Plum Trees, can be found here on a previous


I've been preoccupied with wedding plans of late. So many details and decisions have put my mind on overload, like an electrical grid struggling to support a plethora of air conditioning units in their battle against the summer heat. Thankfully, it hasn't been so humid here, since that also slows my brain down, and our air conditioning is quite adequate to the task of keeping our house comfortable.

My mom happened to mention during her last visit that she rarely uses her air conditioning; opening the windows at night, closing them in the morning and a judicious use of her curtains keeps her quite comfortable during the Indiana summers. While applauding her frugality, my husband mentioned that she might still want to use the air conditioning upon occasion as it would help to keep the moving parts lubricated.

It occurs to me that it's easy to let my own juices congeal. Even as I think and write about choosing joy, I can get so preoccupied with solving problems and living in my head that I don't allow the beauty of the moment to refresh my soul (not to mention my body). One of my favorite bloggers, Robin Bates, posted this poem over at Better Living Through Beowulf. I love the play on words; you wouldn't, for instance, expect that indulging your senses is the "sensible" thing to do. And "succumb" should describe someone who's been overcome by their senses, not one who has successfully resisted their allure. No, in this case, it is the rational argument that needs to be defeated - the pressures of delight that need to be endured and embraced. Imagine someone who has lived in black and white all their life entering suddenly into a world of color. The assault upon the rods and cones of the eye tempt a retreat into the familiar sepia, but oh, the loss! The solution may be to start small, one plum at a time.

I also like the marriage of mind and body that flows from this poem, the suggestion that happiness works its way to your mind through your body. "Joy is a taste before it is anything else" says Mary Oliver. While I don't know if I totally agree with that sentiment, I do believe we need to become integrated selves. Someone who lives totally in the physical realm misses the relational or intellectual joys that are also available. But those of us who live in our heads or become unnecessarily preoccupied with the busyness of life run the risk of dehydrated souls, while rivers of delight pass us by every day.

This poem encourages me to take the time to lounge - to devour (!) the beauty that comes to me through my sense (those five rivers that flow inward). And to recognize that these are, indeed, important moments.

The Plum Trees

by Mary Oliver

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

Artwork by Christian Berentz found at the Web Gallery of Art