The chalice of becoming. Redon.

The chalice of becoming. Odilon Redon. 1894. Private Collection

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...

"The Journey" from Dreamwork by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's poem "The Journey" is a personal favorite. Just like the scent of a particular perfume -- or a musical phrase from an old love song, this poem resurrects memories from a very pivotal time in my past. But when I consider the poem in the context of my present life and values, a life which values both my internal and my external concerns, this poem creates an interesting tension between the two. Can I really only save my own life? The short answer to that question is (probably) yes. But that is only the short answer. So to put my musings on Mary Oliver and "The Journey" in the form of a larger question -- how do I find the balance between the requirements of my inner life and my outer world (especially when they are quite often in conflict)?

Here's a related story.

I was having dinner with friends last week. We are a diverse group, representing different walks of life, different backgrounds, different life stages. Once a month we gather, bridged by good food, good wine and good literature. After dinner, we were discussing Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. One of the members remarked that she would dearly love to go to an ashram for three months (as Gilbert did) -- but how could she do something like that with small children at home? It was out of the question.

But was it out of the question? Some group members came up with alternatives. One offered to take our ashram-longing member to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York for a weekend of meditation. Another suggested that every member of the group help with the children while our ashram-longing member went on a three month retreat in India. Still another observed that he thought that women belonged at home with the children -- and not on an ashram without the children. And then a group member seated next to me said quietly, "But what if going to the ashram would make her a better mother?"

I don't think she was heard over the competing voices. It's too bad. To my way of thinking, that was a terrific way to look at the ashram-longing of our friend because it considered the value of both her inner life and her outer world and how they are so intimately linked.

How our ashram-longing member should choose is hers alone to discover but I believe the whispered question was the one that might provide an authentic answer. How easy it is, how much safer it feels, to be led by external advice -- rather than to heed the quiet whispering wisdom inside. And as I write this morning I wonder how many times a voice deep within me is whispering that all important question, but I am too busy listening to all the other outside voices to hear the quiet one inside me.