A Glimpse in the Pinewoods of a World That Could Be

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - 5:30 am

A Glimpse in the Pinewoods of a World That Could Be

I once had an encounter with an angry man. He was angry about something hopeful I’d said during a radio interview. My hopefulness convinced him that I was blind to all that’s wrong with our world. He called me a couple of names I’d not heard since I was at Berkeley in the ‘60s, en route to becoming a community organizer — such as “bourgeois evader of social responsibility,” or words to that effect.

I’m not unhappy with the way I responded to him. I began by affirming what I found true in his statement — God knows there IS a lot wrong with our world. Then I calmly disagreed with what I did not find true. I invited him to look at some historical evidence that hope can help us make progress on critical problems — if and when we’re willing to act courageously on our hope. But I’m afraid that what I said did little if anything to close the gap between us.

Today, at 5 a.m., in the course of my usual poetry browsing and reading, I found this poem by Mary Oliver — or should I say, Saint Mary Oliver! Who’d’a thunk that a poem about two deer grazing in the pinewoods would take me back to my “angry man” encounter, but it did. The key is in those lines,

“This / is not a poem about a dream, / though it could be. / This is a poem about the world / that is ours, or could be.”

It’s also in that superb final stanza, which is about one way to get to the world that could be ours.

That angry man and I disagree on how to get there. But I’d like to think we share the conviction that there’s always a world that could be. What I know for sure is that it depends on us, on thee and me…

“Five A.M. in the Pinewoods”
by Mary Oliver

I’d seen
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
Finally
one of them—I swear it!—

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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