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Mary Oliver Reads Her Poem “I Happened to be Standing”

The poems of Mary Oliver are prayers that anyone can pray. They are spacious and simple, expansive and ordinary. They don’t require us to believe in anything in particular, but they do ask us to pay attention to that fleeting and particular space of a moment.

When asked about the spiritual life of her childhood, Mary Oliver told Krista Tippett:

“Well I would define it now very differently from when I was a child. I was sent to Sunday School, as many kids are. And then I had trouble with the Resurrection. So I would not join the church. But I was still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter into the church. It’s been one of the most important interests of my life. And continues to be.

And it doesn’t have to be Christianity, or Islam. I’m very much taken with the poet Rumi. Who is a Muslim, a Sufi poet. I read him every day. I have no answers, but I have some suggestions. I know that a life is much richer with a spiritual part to it.

Oliver has said that when she talks about prayer she’s thinking of that oft-quoted line of Rumi’s: “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Her poem “I Happened to Be Standing” embodies that line. And it’s something quite special to hear it in the poet’s own voice.

“I Happened to Be Standing”

I don't know where prayers go,
     or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
     half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
     crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
     growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
     along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
     of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can't really
     call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
     or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that's their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don't know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don't. That's your business.
But I thought, of the wren's singing, what could this be
     if it isn't a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

“I Happened to Be Standing” from A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver, published by The Penguin Press, New York, Copyright © Mary Oliver, 2012, reprinted by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.

This poem was originally read in the On Being episode “Listening To the World.

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