OpinionWhat did you notice?

Our new chaplain uses poetry to process his return to Trinity
Alexander Serna-WallenderFebruary 27, 2019771 min
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Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

A month ago Mary Oliver, one of the great contemporary poets, passed away at the age of 83. Her poetry is a beautiful blending of the natural and the spiritual, the very real and the mystical. At the time of her death people all over social media posted some of their favorite writings of hers, and as her poems got shared and re-shared it seemed, even if just for a passing moment, to provide a balm to the weary spirits of many.

In my first two weeks back at Trinity, no longer as a student, but as the new university Chaplain, I’ve been thinking again about some of Mary Oliver’s writings. In particular, I have been sitting with her poem “Gratitude.” What I love most about “Gratitude” is not the stanzas themselves but the framing questions that give shape to the poem and its parts. Each stanza starts with a different question — questions that in many ways are radical in their simplicity and have been, for me, an invitation to appreciate this place, this campus, this new/old home of mine anew.

The questions that Oliver asks, and by extension, invites us to consider are

What did you notice?

What did you hear?

What did you admire?

What astonished you?

What would you like to see again?

What was most tender?

What was most wonderful?

What did you think was happening?

As I have been walking around Trinity’s campus with these questions in the back of my mind, I have gained a new level of appreciation for this place. An appreciation not only for its red bricks and green grass, but for some of the opportunities to stop, pause for a minute and give thanks. From the smell of the Mountain Laurels, to the regular chimes of Murchison Tower, to the expressions of friendship and care I see exhibited by others as they walk across campus, I can’t help but be grateful for the invitations to be present, to be mindful, to be attentive to all that is unfolding all around me. This is a far from perfect place or a perfect community; there is very real hurt and pain present in our midst, some that others know about and some that others may never know. In times of hurt, these questions might not be the right ones to ask, but they remain there as invitations.

As you head into your weekend and the coming week, I invite you to take one or two of these questions with you. Ask yourself either in the moment or at the end of the day: What did you notice? What did you hear? What was most wonderful to you? And sit for just a moment with that memory. It’s a small and humble practice, but I know it has helped me to see this place afresh and given deeper meaning to the ways I walk from place to place, and I hope it may do the same for you.

Alexander Serna-Wallender

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