‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

I first heard “The Journey” by Mary Oliver as a young woman of about 19 or 20 years old. It was read aloud by a woman with long, flowing brown hair, and dark blue eyes. We were in a writing circle of multi-generational women from diverse backgrounds and varied pasts. Atop a mountain overlooking the Rio Grande, with the fading embers of sunlight dripping towards dusk, we all let out a quiet collective gasp upon the poem’s end.

We felt it immediately. The Journey was our journey, and we had to take it. Mary Oliver had given us permission to hear that whisper inside of us, listen to it with complete attention, let our lives tremble and crumble, let the masks and strivings and ambitions and duties fall away, let the path open wide for the journey that would finally reveal who we truly were, and how to embody her.

Sometimes it is time for such a journey. But often we have more than one voice doing the whispering, or yelling, or rationally conversing within us. We want to march courageously and passionately into the storm, into the darkness of the unknown, and claim our engaging and wholly authentic life. We are ready! We are impassioned! And there is no stopping us!

But as we head out the door, another voice chimes in equally as excited – “what about your job?” “what about the assignment due on Tuesday?” “what about your houseplants, who will water them?” “what about the kids / the spouse / the aging parents / the debts / the grandchildren / the lover / the meditation practice you just started?” “what about all that you have been working for?”

And so we stop. Munch a cookie. Look out the window and watch the storm clouds pass. We decide to wait for the right time. We’ll take the journey when our lives are less complicated. Then we’ll slip out, quietly and unnoticed.

It has been my experience, however, that we don’t have to wait until our lives are less complicated. We don’t have to wait until we can slip out, unnoticed. In truth, the journey is not an external voyage, and it requires no train ticket. The journey does not demand that you abandon any part of your home or family. It’s not all or nothing, and the journey is not a one time event. They journey can be taken for many years, months, weeks, or days. The journey can be taken in one hour. One minute. One moment.

The journey is not dependant on the amount of time we spend on it, but rather the quality of our attention. The journey requires that we simply attune to our inner voice. The journey is the courageous quest of listening.

Mend Your Life – Take the Journey

I have found there are really only 4 steps to take on this journey. I recommend taking them during times of confusion or unrest, when a persistent inner angst let’s you know that something in your life is not right. It might be obvious, something you can point to, but you’re not sure how to respond. Or it might be unclear, and you just feel ‘off”. You do know that you need a new perspective.

1. Retreat – The first step on the journey is to retreat. Find some alone time. It can be for 5 minutes, an entire day, a week, or longer. It doesn’t really matter so much the length of time, and you will likely have an intuitive sense of how much time is required for your particular needs. Your retreat may be spending time by the ocean, in the forest, on a mountain, in your bedroom, in your bed, at a hotel, in another country, at a meditation centre, a cabin in the woods, on your couch when you have the house to yourself, in a tree fort, the bathtub, on the lawn.

What matters is that the space you choose feels private, away from the demands and expectations of others. If you have a family to attend to, schedule your retreat to be in harmony with your familial responsibilities. Can you find time to retreat after work, when the children are asleep? Can you get up a bit earlier and spend an hour with yourself in the stillness of the morning? Do you have a few hours to retreat while your children are at school or other activities?

remember2. Relax – During your retreat time, cultivate calm. Ease your body and mind into a softer, slower rhythm. Practice deep belly breathing, drink warm relaxing tea, and attempt to quiet the mind that is churning out it’s list of duties and deadlines. Assure your mind that you will attend to all of it’s concerns promptly, just as soon as you’ve had a little down time. If you have a meditation or yoga practice, enjoy the parts of them that calm you down. If you don’t have a practice, simply lying down is good. Gazing at a peaceful horizon is good. Putting your feet in a natural water source is good. A warm bath with steamy essential oils is good. Walking in nature is good. A massage is good. A nap is good. Music that moves your heart is good. However you are able to do it, switch off the high-gear and sink into low. Go for mellow, soft, gentle, and slow. You may like to try this simple awareness meditation offered by Vietemese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, from his book Peace is Every Step:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

* A note about relaxing – If you are very stressed, overworked, exhausted, or chronically ill, the relax phase may need more time. You might need several days, weeks, or even several months to relax. If so, by all means, take the time for yourself and relax as much as possible. Dedicate little parts of your day to it. Perhaps take a supportive class, or consult with a natural medicine practitioner to help you design a stress-reduction program that fits with your life.

woman-writing3. Review – Once you are sufficiently relaxing and in a supportive space of retreat, it is time to review your life and examine your thoughts. Invite that whispering voice out of hiding, and allow her to speak up. With rapt attention and no judgement, hear what she has to say. You may like to write down what you hear, and even engage in an open dialogue with her about different aspects of your life. Ask her what she thinks is working, and what needs to change, regarding your work, relationships, finances, diet, family, love life, spirituality, creativity, pleasures, health, and any other aspect of your life. You might like to make a heading for each of these categories, and journal through “what is working well”, and “what I’d like to change” for each one. If you don’t know what you’d like to change, then don’t force it. Simply sit with the unknowing. Wait. It’s okay not to know.

During the retreat process, identify your North star, which will guide you through any self-inquiry work. Your North star is the answer to: “How do I want to feel?” Using that as a prompt, begin to review the parts of your life that support that feeling, and the parts of your life that do not support it. Write down the actions you can take to create more of that feeling for yourself in your everyday life.

4. Respond & Restore – Wisdom blooms when we put into action the things we have learned. The final step on the journey is action and integration. Reflect on the journey you took towards hearing your own voice, no matter how long or short it was. Notice what it feels like in body and mind after you have paid that voice some attention. From that place of inner awareness, respond to your life. Respond to the call for action, the need for change. Respond to your needs that were made more clear. Respond by saying yes, or no, to the aspects of your life that need an adjustment.

By responding to ourselves and reviewing our lives, we plant the seeds of restoration. We tend to the heart. We mend our life. As we stride ‘deeper and deeper into the world’, it is with poise and purpose. We create the kind of life we want to be living. And then we love it, because it is truly ours.

© Candice May 2014.