The doors to the temple

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream, via Jena Schwartz

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which beloved poet Mary Oliver … meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” 

Publisher comments to Upstream, via

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question we ask children, and I still remember some of my earliest answers to it: a veterinarian, a florist, a writer. It was a question I once thought I had to answer only once, and that once I did all the other pieces of my life would fall into place around it. I would be grown-up then, a grown-up, with the terrible wonderful question of what to be finally settled.

We should tell children that it’s a question they must answer again and again and again (just as we should tell them that commitment to a life partner is something that must happen every day, not just the one on which we slip a ring onto a finger). We should let them know that the question of what they are going to do and the one of who they are going to be have separate but intertwined answers, not unlike a DNA strand’s strings of nucleotides or a braided loaf’s baked ropes of bread.

Last week I went for a walk with my friend Sharon. We met on a busy city street in northwest Portland and sat on a sidewalk and ate biscuits, and then we walked uphill a few blocks to a staircase that took us down to the footings of a bridge and entry to Forest Park, a 5,200 acre wood within the city limits. Just weeks before, I had walked up the same hill with Cane and not seen the entrance to the stairs nor had any thought, really, of what lay beneath the hill; stepping onto the top step with Sharon felt a bit like walking into Lewis’s wardrobe entrance to Narnia. One minute we were part of the urban throng, and the next we were walking a forest canyon trail.

As we made our way along Balch Creek to The Stone House (which some, including Sharon’s granddaughters, call The Witch’s Castle), I thought of my old friend Robert and his frequent exhortations to get myself out into the natural world. I thought of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams and other writers whose work and spirituality is inextricably intertwined with their love of forests, fields, deserts, tundras, and the beings who inhabit them. I have often wished I could be such a person as they, but I am not. Although a river once helped me through the hardest decision of my life, I never came to truly know it, and eventually I left it because I knew I’d never be more than a visitor and I needed to find home.

If ever there was a house that could be home for a witch, the Stone House is it. Mossy rock walls, dark doorways, a tiny structure tucked into the slope of a hill. According to the Forest Park Conservancy site, it was “conceived as a rustic manmade counterpoint to the natural beauty of Balch Creek Canyon,” and it “emphasizes the contrast of the natural and man-made worlds.”


I expressed some dismay at the graffiti adorning it. “Oh,” Sharon said, “the graffiti is OK. We don’t mind it.”

“We don’t?”

She shrugged. “It’s how some people need to tell their story.”

For Mary Oliver, “the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” Temples, of course, are the places where we find ourselves, where we come face-to-face with the essence of things, where we seek understanding and comfort and peace. What a fortunate person she was, to have found her temple early and for it to remain constant throughout her life. There’s an enviable simplicity in that, especially for those of us who see temples everywhere and have trouble knowing where best to worship. Me, I’ve found them within the walls of a classroom, the stacks of a library, the curve of my child’s cheek. As a young girl, I found it in pencils, paper, snips of fabric, spools of thread, skeins of yarn, tiny ceramic animals I played with at the base of towering fir trees that grew in my suburban front yard. And, the other day, walking in the woods with my friend, I found one in a technicolor-painted piece of history, a decommissioned restroom that could be a witch’s castle or an architectural artifact or a monument on the other side of a portal to a foreign world.

We are nearing the day of making resolutions and setting intentions, of saying good-bye to one year and hello to another. Many are ready to turn away from this year, as if it has somehow been the source of our suffering and our pain will end when the year does, but when the clock strikes midnight on December 31 and we leave 2020 to memory, neither we nor the world will be magically transformed. We are who we are, and that is who we will still be on January 1. But think of it–how changed the world and each of us is, right now, from what and who we were a year ago at this time, even as we are, simultaneously, exactly who and what we have always been. Isn’t our hike through time, in some ways, like walking a Möbius strip?

Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergrad, a writing instructor asked me what I wanted to do with my life.

“I want to be a writer,” I answered.

“What does that mean to you?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “It means, I want to write,” I said. The details of my grown-up life as a writer had always been fuzzy to me. As a young teen I hoped it might involve working in a solitary cabin on a beach, with perhaps a dog I could take for long walks when I needed a break, and a quiet sort of fame in which others knew my name but not my face. That vision hadn’t evolved much. She pushed me to define what type of writing I wanted to do, how I planned to make a living at it, what I wanted to write about, and I didn’t know how to answer her questions. I hadn’t yet gone out enough into the world to know at all who I was, what I was, and what I wanted to be. I wanted to write in the way I once created dramas for my ceramic animals and stitched together bits of cloth for my dolls: freely, playfully, with no agenda other than delight. I knew there was a living that needed to be made, and I had vague notions of children and a family, but I didn’t know how my desire to write could or might intertwine with other wants and needs.

In recent years I’ve talked with people about the shapes my life might take after teaching. “Maybe you can write now,” I’ve heard more than once, and I’ve nodded agreement, not knowing any more clearly than I did decades ago what that might mean. But as this annus horribilis draws to a close and possibilities for a different kind of life come closer, I’ve realized something important: I already am writing. I have written here, at least once a week, for the entirety of this year, the longest stretch of regular writing I’ve ever managed. As Sharon gently reminded me, there are many ways in which we might all tell our stories. For the first time ever, I have no regret about how I’ve been telling mine.

Mary Oliver tells us, in what may be her most well-known and beloved poem, that we do not have to be good, and that we only have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. In my work as an instructional coach (a different kind of creative labor), I’ve learned that my role is not to author another person’s story or to impose mine upon theirs. It is to ask questions that will allow their story to emerge, and to give them space in which to tell it freely. And so, as I share my last post for this year, knowing you might be thinking about resolutions or intentions or the kind of story you want to write with the coming time of your life, I want to offer the questions helping me think about what I might make of the coming days and months of mine, questions we all must answer again and again and again if we are to heed the call of our restive creative powers and become the people we feel meant to be:

What do you want to do?

Who will you be?

What is your temple?

How do you need to tell your story?

19 thoughts on “The doors to the temple

  1. Kate says:

    I wonder if understanding that “what will you be when you grow up” is a question you will continue to ask yourself long after you’ve “grown up” is like understanding what it’s like to be a mother – you don’t know until you get there and when once you get there you’ll look back and see things you could do better, or would do over, or really really miss.

    I’ve always felt that we have a wistfulness (for lack of a better word) for all the lives we could, would, should love to live and a wish that we could somehow be multiple people simultaneously to just squeeze it all.

    I’m 42 and don’t have answers to your four questions. I think I’ll be 82 and not have answers to your questions. But I really love the idea of trying to find out.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kate,
      Your description of motherhood is so spot-on, and yes–I wish I could have lived multiple lives. (My daughter tells me that this is because I am a Sagittarius.) For me, it’s helpful to know that my answers to the questions can keep changing, or that I can have more than one answer. I do wish I’d understood that sooner. Better late than never, though. It makes the finding out a pleasure, rather than the sometimes-torture it felt like 30 years ago.

  2. Marian says:

    This is beautiful, Rita. An entire year of weekly-ish posts is indeed a feat. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who has looked forward to these weekend posts, and who has understood and appreciated all the work and love that’s gone into creating them.

    I can never see or hear the words, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” without feeling something that is close to despair. I am one of those “regretful people . . . who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” But if there are indeed “forces that [allow one] to create a life for [one]self out of work and love,” as Mary Oliver said, then the corollary must be that there are also forces that will disallow this kind of life. (I honestly hate that I am seemingly always the person who comes up with a “yes, but.”) I do have answers for all four of your questions—I can feel what I want to do in my bones—but I cannot seem to make myself take action. Or, at least, I cannot seem to make myself take action anymore. I did take action once upon a time, but I can no longer do it. About a year and a half ago, someone asked me what I wanted out of life, which is a slightly different way to phrase the question, and my immediate response was that I wanted to be small and safe. Sadly, I think this need overrides everything else I might want.

    I love what Kate said about feeling wistful for all the lives we’d like to live and all the people we’d like to be. I feel this too. Whenever I voice this wistfulness, my husband, always logical, will ask me, “And what would you like to trade?” Nothing, I’ll say. And yet that feeling remains.

    • Kate says:

      Marian, I really appreciate you. I know you’re commenting on Rita’s posts, but I love them and enjoy them and look forward to them.

      I just wanted to say that I think it’s absolutely acceptable to want be small and safe. I think in a world that’s loud and angry and harsh that’s a reasonable top priority.

      About the wistfulness, I wouldn’t trade anything either. I think the wondering and wistfulness is just part of being an imaginative type of person.

      I’m sending hugs, Marian. I know this has been a hard year – it’s not an easy time to have HSP tendencies.

        • Marian says:

          Thank you for this, Kate and Rita. Without your blogs my silence would be complete; I’m so grateful to both of you for continuing to hold a space for these kinds of conversations.

    • Rita says:

      I absolutely believe there are forces that prevent many of us from building lives out of work and love. I feel only partially successful at that, and I can name all the barriers that kept me from realizing it more fully in earlier stages of my life. I’m taking some comfort in thinking that, in real ways, it is never too late. I mean, sure, it is too late for me to build a life like Oliver’s. That’s not going to happen for me. But it’s never too late, if we can counter those forces in some way, to give our creative forces time and power. It might take some re-framing and re-defining. Part of that, for me, has been accepting that small and safe is just the kind of life I want, and probably always has been. There are good reasons for that, and I’m getting to a place of feeling peace with that.

      I hope you can find more peace and safety in the coming year. As Kate said, this one has been very hard. And for whatever it is worth, I see you as one of the most creative people I know. I have, at times, envied your creative output. Maybe your creativity isn’t going in the channels you’d like it to, but still, it’s there.

      • Marian says:

        “I have, at times, envied your creative output.” My first thought after reading this is that you must have me mixed up with someone else, Rita. I hope it’s ok to tell you that I have often envied you. This is because when I was young, my answer to the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up was a teacher, a librarian, or a writer, and you are all three of those things. If I told you the full story of how I wanted to be one of those three things and yet somehow wound up as a pharmacist, you would be appalled. (*I* am appalled.) That being said, I haven’t quite given up on the idea that I can still become a writer. I know that there are many people who come to this late, and that knowledge does bring me comfort. Part of what I wanted to say in my comment, but didn’t, was that I somehow always suspected that the claim that “you can have it all”—which I feel was drilled into the heads of girls growing up in the 70s and 80s—was a lie. I’d like to hope I’m entering the season of my life when I actually will be able to make good in some small way on at least one of those early dreams. It may be too late for me to become a teacher or a librarian, but I know it’s never too late for writing.

        • Rita says:

          No, I am not mixed up, and no, I would not be appalled if you were a pharmacist. You are incredibly creative–I long to make things with my hands in the ways that you do. (I hope to change some of that in the coming year.) I would be sad if you were a pharmacist, if that isn’t what you’d hoped to do, but never appalled.

          As for lies of the 70s and 80s–particularly toward girls–well, I’ve spent some time just this morning thinking and writing about that for this week’s post. I might have a whole book in me on that line of exploration. I did fall for that myth; I think it was a well-meaning one. A hope the generation before ours had, more than anything else.

          I hope you can find a way to write again. I so enjoy the writings of yours I’ve been able to read. A thing I was trying to say in my response (but probably wasn’t clear about) is that one thing we can do is shift our ideas about what a thing means. I am not really a librarian, not in the way I hoped to be when I went back to school 11 years ago to become one. What I wanted was to be a person in a school who creates a library space and connects kids with books. I haven’t done that, and I’ve realized in the past year or so that I’m likely not going to get to. (I’ve tried and tried; Covid pretty much killed the slim chance I had of seeing that dream come true.) Even if I give up the library job I have, though, I don’t necessarily have to give up on the essence of library work. I love being a person who connects others with books and information. I do that a bit here, but I could do more–maybe more in a job that isn’t an official library job at all. I could teach in different ways, too. I hope I’m not coming off as an insensitive Pollyanna (you know I hate toxic positivity), but reframing and looking for the essence of things is a thing that’s helping me come to terms with what is and what will likely never be. I’m still working these ideas out, so I might not be as clear as I’d like to be.

          • Marian says:

            I think I need to clarify that I don’t think there’s anything appalling about a person being a pharmacist. The reason I used that word in conjunction with me being a pharmacist is because I became one even though I was perfectly aware—right from the get go—that I didn’t want to become one.

            Reframing and looking for the essence of things has also been really helpful to me. I’ve often thought how lucky I’ve been to have had the time and the ability to act as my own children’s librarian. I have loved researching and finding books for them as well as reading aloud to them. I also loved being able to volunteer in my children’s school libraries, although that was also, at times, a problem because it reminded me of all three of those things I once said I wanted to be, but wasn’t.

            Feminism and work and “having it all” — the combination of these three things has been running through my thoughts like a broken record for the past 24 and a half years. (I also have a book’s worth of thoughts on the subject, but too much anxiety to let those thoughts be spoken aloud.)

            “I love being a person who connects others with books and information.” Oh, this is me, too! 🙂

          • Rita says:

            Oh, I misunderstood! I didn’t know that you actually became a pharmacist. Maybe I would be appalled, but I still kinda doubt it. But thank you for clarifying.

            My daughter likes to say: “Kids, career, relationship: Pick two.” Meaning, you can’t have all three and have a satisfying life. I hate it, but I understand why she feels that way. She’s watched me trying to juggle those her whole life. I like something I heard some years back that’s become generally known (but I don’t know who said it): “You can have it all, just not all at once.” I don’t think that’s entirely true, either; unfortunately, the window of years for career development is the same window for child-bearing. You can step out of your career, but you’ll lose ground that most can never make up. Still, it rings more true than “you can have it all.” I suppose building a life is like buying a house: You never get a house that has everything your list of wants for a home; compromises always have to be made. Still, you can find one that works for you, one that you love in spite of what it’s missing.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you! I am so grateful for the new places Dave’s digests have taken me. I popped over to your online home this morning and it was a comfortable place that felt familiar. I hope you’ll write more there, or come around here and join in our conversations here.

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    This is so good. I feel like the questions are a test that I need to study for, though. Does that make sense? I think there are levels to writing because I feel inadequate in my writing too. I just wrote a post a few weeks ago that will publish in January about feeling that way.

    By the way, you live in a magical-looking place. The forest. The witch house. I love your thoughts on the graffiti. I agree with you. We all need ways to express ourselves.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Blogs That Are Getting Me Through the PandemicMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kari,
      I hate to think I made you feel you have to study for a test! I think it’s the opposite–maybe because I spent so many years searching so hard for the answers, and it’s only be relaxing some that I’m starting to feel answers come to me.

      In many ways I think I live in a magical place, too. I wish I could take you to the place I described in this post. It felt magical. One minute I truly was in the midst of city (pavement, traffic, noise, people), and then we went down a staircase and were in the forest you saw. It felt like I went into a different, underground world. I feel fortunate in that.

      The thoughts on the graffiti weren’t mine–they were my friend’s. I felt rather pissy and self-righteous when I saw it. It’s not an unreasonable response, but I appreciated hers because it’s a more generous one. The world has given me so many opportunities this past year to learn how to look through a more generous lens.

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