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By the Wild-Haired Corn, Mary Oliver

September 18, 2020

I’ve been feeling deep in stasis since March, my usual habit of propelling myself from one destination to another hung up by circumstance. My old answer to coming home was to plan the next trip. Now there’s no next highway, no next cornfield. There’s just the garden I’ve planted and the volunteers that come up each year, a white flowering the latest feature. We don’t plant tulips or lilies or sunflowers, as the deer eat them all.

One of the effects of not mixing with people is a sense of stasis. For years I was a commuter, driving an hour to work down two-lane roads through misty cornfields and then I was driving my kids to college, one eleven hours away, in the middle of the country through fields of corn, soybeans, ragweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and the other two hours away through fields of sunflowers, goldenrod, reddening vines at the bottom of the fences. Now, even though I could go out for a drive, I don’t. I stay still; the field of wildflowers I pass to get to a local hardware store is the only one to show me its changing colors.

But then one day I had an errand that took me on a road I rarely travel, one through cornfields and past sunflowers. It was a late summer day, the nights already so cool we have to close the windows on our back porch, the kind of day when the sun feels good, banishing the chill, promising endless delight like in the Keats poem: “to set budding more/ And still more, later flowers for the bees/ Until they think warm days will never cease.”

I see that my stillness is no answer to the question of where are we going but more like the inertia that moves an object through space, its trajectory the only choice it gets about a destination. Like the transformation in Mary Oliver’s poem “By the Wild-Haired Corn”:

I don’t know
if the sunflowers
are angels always,
but surely sometimes.

Who, even in heaven,
wouldn’t want to wear,
for awhile,
such a seed-face

and brave spine,
a coat of leaves
with so many pockets—
and who wouldn’t want

to stand, for a summer day,
in the hot fields,
in the lonely country
of the wild-haired corn?

This much I know,
when I see the bright
stars of their faces,
when I’m strolling nearby,

I grow soft in my speech,
and soft in my thoughts,
and I remember how everything will be everything else,
by and by.

A good reminder, that even when a person is standing still change is still happening.

What is changing for you?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2020 2:20 am

    I made the big move cross-county. I’m trying to make my lockdown time good for writing – it’s hard.

    • September 20, 2020 9:22 pm

      I love your inventiveness in finding ways to write. It does sometimes help to see a new scene, and that’s not a solution available to you right now. I am limited in how far I can drive by not wanting to have to use a public restroom.

      • September 21, 2020 1:53 am

        I did, today. I’m writing from the back seat of a black Mercedes traveling east from Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, to New Delhi.

        I’m having to be very careful and circumspect in asking questions of the driver, a minor actor in the film Opium. I don’t know where his loyalties lie, or whether I can get him to gossip.

        The scenes from the point of view of my rather self-centered villain are hard to get into – and then she takes hold, and I get to use her conniving mind once I figure out how to do what she wants.

        Here’s the end of what I’ve written, which should be about 2/3 of the finished scene:
        “‘It is an action film.’” Narendra’s voice was prim. “That is what Elson said.”
        “Interesting. Has the script changed much, do you know? I thought that was why Kary was here.”
        “There were many script conferences. I do not know if Doctor Kary was there.”
        “Huh.” Curioser and curioser.
        Should be able to finish it tomorrow, maybe even tonight – if I can’t get to sleep.

        It is not easy to keep switching to a new character for most new scenes, but I think it keeps me fresh – it takes a while to find the new character again, but it is THE way for this story.

  2. September 18, 2020 11:34 am

    Mary Oliver has a poem for everything it seems! Even though I go in to work at the library every day, there are hardly any students around. I am both relieved and sad about that. And where my days used to be nothing but interruptions, now I am hardly ever interrupted and I find myself missing that.

    • September 20, 2020 9:24 pm

      Isn’t it odd to miss interruptions? I find that I’m interrupted more often because Ron is working at home and as someone who has always worked full time he’s used to finding someone to talk to for a few minutes in between tasks. I think that those of us who have worked at home for years and who get paid for “half-time” take fewer breaks.

  3. September 18, 2020 4:52 pm

    I love sunflowers. And the Keats poem reminds me of one by Yeats:

    I will arise and go now,
    And go to Innisfree
    And a small cabin build there
    Of clay and wattles made.

    Nine bean-rows will I have there,
    A hive for the honeybee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    One of my favorite books is named after the Innisfree poem — A Hive For the Honeybee, by Soinbhe Lally. It’s a beautiful and melancholy allegory on religious extremism and gender norms, symbolized by the life cycle of a single hive of anthropomorphic bees.

    As for changes, this whole year (I mean the last 365 days, not just 2020) has brought me back to a state of freedom that’s both a relief and a source of anxiety. I had to leave my job at the library last October because of a major, long-lasting flare-up of depression, and now, knowing how these flare-ups seem to come in cycles, I’m trying to figure out a source of income that won’t be so susceptible to my illness.

    I like to think the universe is pointing me in a better direction, but it always sucks when the catalyst is something so painful.

    • September 20, 2020 9:28 pm

      It’s terrible to have to give up working at a library! I hope you find something that works better for you. Change is never easy and your catalyst does sound quite painful.
      The Lake Isle of Innisfree is indeed a lovely poem.

  4. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    September 19, 2020 12:29 pm

    Stasis: yes. There’s such an odd feeling of being in limbo, unable to move forward but unwilling to look back. I think if we knew “six more months” or even “two more years” the certainty would be a relief even if it seemed like a really long haul ahead. Things do change, though: after a long summer of planning, now classes have begun, and though I am not in love with teaching online, I do find it helpful to *need* to be up and at ’em every day, even if it just means up and at my computer for hours. I think there’s something specific about the experience of this in middle age (every age is going to experience it differently) – because I was ready, before this hit, to enter into what I thought would be a period of greater freedom, with my kids moving out and my career established enough that I can enter a newly productive phase with some more experimentation and maybe some new kinds of success eventually. Now I wonder, is this as far as I get, in my life? That’s on the bad days, anyway.

    Those sunflowers really are gorgeous.

    • September 20, 2020 9:34 pm

      Yes, certainly some of the stress is uncertainty.
      I’m really feeling what you say about how you thought you were going to enter a period of greater freedom and now you’re wondering if this is as far as you get.
      I was finally getting to travel to some of the places I’ve always wanted to see, and now I can’t even leave the country. It’s hard not to feel trapped. On the bad days I fear I missed the window that it’s so easy to see when you read about Jews escaping from Europe during WWII or women in The Handmaid’s Tale escaping to Canada. It’s too late for that now.

  5. September 19, 2020 1:49 pm

    What is changing for me? I am trying to deepen my self-care, mixing in a bit of strength training (very basic) and more fruits and vegetables. I’ve also been doing an online course called Cultivating You that gets me to explore different aspects of my relationship to myself. I’m trying to empower my voice and explore my creativity. While I am not planning any travel either for a while, I guess I’m using this time to do some inner work, which hopefully will make me happier and more whole, and hopefully result in better relationships with others as well. Thanks for sharing the poem and the pictures!

    • September 20, 2020 9:36 pm

      That all sounds really positive. I like it that you’re out there reading books and finding ways to feel happier and more whole. You’re like a sunflower yourself.

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