LINGERING, on Mary Oliver’s “Invitation”


Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.*

Lingering.  Even the word itself seems leisurely, relaxed, languid. It makes me think about how so many people would linger in my mother’s kitchen, having just stopped by, in the most walkable neighborhood in town, not wanting to let the moment of being in her calm, engaged acceptance go. Few visitors sat, and certainly not the beloved ones we children most wanted to sit and share their stories and jokes and good will; their refusal to commit to a chair made their presence all the more desired and valued, since it manifested their understanding of how much my mom was always trying to do.  People knew that my mother rarely sat herself, how she was usually multitasking, and so they stood, on the verge of departure, yearning to stay. When I think harder, this standing-in-the-doorway sometimes meant that these were people who had nowhere to go, no one to listen, who needed something even they couldn’t name. So maybe that isn’t really lingering. But my mother listened, deeply, and often quietly went about a task in the kitchen while she did so.

Her close friends–all busy so-called-stay-at-home women definitely not staying home, making things happen, growing their town, lifting the weight–I think we could say they mini-lingered. Like my mom, they all had a mental list years long of the responsibilities they had taken on in family, church, community, school, what were called “civic arts” at the time.  These moving and shaking women truly did linger, on a tight schedule, enjoying the deep understanding and discreet knowledge they shared but did not share out loud, exchanging anecdotes about their kids, just drinking in each other’s presence, being in true company.

My mother was, however, also an expert and efficient lingerer. When she made her cup of herbal tea of an afternoon and braced her aching varicose-veined legs straight up on a chair or a wall, she was instantly and completely relaxed, free of thought, basking in the relief of a well-earned break. When she laid down for a nap (again on the floor), she was out like a light, immediately.

Of course, the direct opposite of lingering, in my book, is procrastination.  My beloved says procrastination is the hardest work we do.  Avoiding hard tasks that make demands of us, whether by screwing off, doing busywork, or perhaps most painful of all, pretending to address the task at hand, yet knowing we are not doing what needs to be done, is exhausting and demoralizing. Two years ago, my New Year’s non-resolution was to attack the tasks I most dread, which have, perhaps, been lingering the longest. (I’ve done reasonably well, but you are next Direct TV, who courted me under false pretenses and have overcharged us from the beginning, although I know it will be a multi-hour phone call, hence the procrastination….)

I guess, when it comes down to it, there is way too little pure, unadulterated lingering. Here’s to a summer of straight-ahead, unimpeded work when work must be done, and delicious, intentional lingering in the in-betweens.

* Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo struck me in the heart when I first read it, in German, with a little translation help, at 22.

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse

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