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11.12: Don’t Be So Sure

I have a book titled Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden. On page 11 and 12, Housden is just beginning to discuss the first poem, Mary Oliver’s “The Journey.” (The other 9 poems are from Machado, Whitman, Rumi, Kabir, Neruda, Kinnell, Merwin, Walcott, and St. John of the Cross.) Since today is 11.12, I’m providing  both the poem and some of Housden’s commentary from pp 11-12. Here’s the poem:

The Journey

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.

 And here is some of Housden’s commentary:

“When I first read this poem, I had just landed in San Francisco from London. That one reading made my hair stand on end. It confirmed the rightness of all that had happened in my life. A few months earlier, I had woken up one morning and knew I should leave my native country of England and go and live in America. Just like that. Rather than a decision, it was like recognizing something whose time has come. Everything needed to change, and the time was now. I sold my house, my library; my love of 12 years and I finally parted; I read my diaries of 25 years and burned them. I got on a plane to California and I have been there, in a new life, ever since….

Perhaps this sounds too dramatic, too grand a gesture, somehow, for the kind of lives that most of us live.Yet at the time it didn’t feel dramatic at all. It was the only thing to do. The poem might seem dramatic, too—surely, you think, it must have been written for someone else; though not for you, not for your humdrum, ordinary round. After all, you may say, you are hardly about to leave everything behind and strike out into some mysterious territory.

Don’t be so sure. I believe Mary Oliver’s poem can speak to anyone, wherever they are on their journey. If you are in the right place and read this poem at the right time, it may be the nudge you need to fall headlong into the life that has been waiting for you all along.”

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