You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and the heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it. ~ Mary Oliver
This prose piece describes the voice of that wiser part of yourself speaking to the more surface self, the more emotion-driven, reactive self. Haven’t we all experienced this wiser self? Perhaps in listening deeply to a friend, you open your mouth and speak wisdom that you didn’t know you knew until that moment. Perhaps it was an intuition, a whisper of warning, a nudge of encouragement from within. Some spiritual traditions speak of this as Self with a capitol “S”. Some speak of a divine spark inhabiting each of us. There is the Inner Light of the Friends. It is referred to as the cave of the heart, the holy of holies deep within where soul communes with the Divine. It can be called Big Mind or the secret place of the heart. So many different and diverse spiritual traditions have this idea in common, as do schools of psychology and philosophy.
Reading the poem is instructive – the Self appealing to the self. It is direct and strong. Listen to me – three times this wiser Self admonishes. I want to reveal something of importance and this disclosure holds a key to living a life of passion and connection. Listen to me – I will uncover a secret. I will open your heart to love. I will waste no pretty words for a life lived without love. It is less than worthless. Not just a penny but a bent penny. Not just a lone shoe but a scuffed one. Not just a dead dog but a rotting one.
That there is a way to live a life of love is presented. Stop rowing. Stop moving along your path blindly, moved by emotion, by habit, by reactivity. Not a Martha is needed here, but a Mary. Sit. Quiet yourself. Wait.
But in that waiting, be alert. Watch. Listen. Sniff the air. Recognize that life is either one of alienation or love. Listen for that call to love. When once you feel its pull, put your oars in the water. Now is the time to act. Even though you cannot yet see the course ahead, even when it seems rife with uncertainty and danger – row toward it. Row with all your heart, with all your strength.
Trust and courage are needed here. Trust in the wisdom of your deepest heart and its connection with a process. Courage to move toward what appears dangerous, to become as a mad man in your passion, to let go of safety, to leave what you know and turn to the unknown. Life shouts at you with its many urgencies and distractions, but your deeper heart hears the call for more and supplies the courage to forge ahead, if only you answer its whispered invitation.
This invitation is not sugar-coated. There are sharp rocks, swirling waters, and the pounding, the pounding. There is the long fall, the plunging waterfall ahead. Roger Housden said, “Be warned: once your heart has blown open and love has found its way into your bloodstream, the time may come when it requires of you a great work that will not cease until you have become ashes.”
Rumi: “Love has taken away all my practices
and filled me with poetry.
A mountain keeps an echo
deep inside itself.
That’s how I hold Your voice.
I am scrap wood thrown in your fire,
and quickly reduced to smoke.”