Reading Mary Oliver with Kids

Sun­day morn­ings find me on zoom with a gath­er­ing of kids ages 3 – 10. We call this time Songs & Sto­ries. It is a high­light in my week. They come in their paja­mas, often eat­ing break­fast, and usu­al­ly with some “stuffies” they want to intro­duce to the group. They are full of ener­gy and good cheer. They mute and unmute them­selves bet­ter than those in any oth­er zoom meet­ing I attend. The screen fair­ly vibrates with their good morn­ing energy.

Chris­tians are in the sea­son of Lent right now, the church’s six week litur­gi­cal sea­son pre­ced­ing East­er. It’s a sea­son of prepa­ra­tion and my Sun­day morn­ing kids would eager­ly tell you that the col­or of this church sea­son is pur­ple. Every­thing at church is pur­ple — we see it on the screen — the pas­tors’ robes, the para­ments on the altar, etc. And we have some pur­ple in our homes — on our kitchen tables, socks on our feet, rib­bons in our hair — to remind our­selves we are in this pur­ple time, this Lenten time.

The kids all received a bag of pur­ple things before Ash Wednes­day — a pur­ple can­dle, pur­ple play­dough, pur­ple papers, pur­ple yarn, and the par­ents’ favorite (I’m sure of it!) a 5×8 box filled with pur­ple sand. We are using all of these pur­ple tools to explore new ways of pray­ing dur­ing Lent.

The pur­ple sand­box is for cen­ter­ing prayer. I con­fess, I was not sure this would work — espe­cial­ly with the Zoom fac­tor, which is about as uncen­ter­ing an expe­ri­ence as can be found. But you don’t know until you try, and I’m awful­ly glad we’ve tried. It’s been fantastic.

We talk about qui­et­ing our bod­ies and brains, open­ing our hearts and minds and our very selves to God’s peace and love. I ask them to draw very slow spi­rals with one fin­ger in the sand and we breathe in through our nose…2…3…and out through our mouths…2…3….

drawing spirals

All of the won­der­ful fre­net­ic ener­gy on the screen calms a few spi­rals in. I see lit­tle noses scrunch­ing up to breath in, lips push­ing out to breath out. I see the messy morn­ing parts in their hair because they are busy look­ing down, intent on the prayer­ful spi­rals their fin­ger is drawing.

Mary Oliver DevotionsOnce most of the zoom squares are still, I read them Mary Oliv­er poet­ry. I know, I know — Mary Oliv­er is an “adult” poet (you know what I mean!) But she uses words in such a divine way. I read to them about the wild things: whistling swans and singing wrens, the flow­ers and trees and geese. I read them Mary’s grace-filled, enthu­si­as­tic, wel­com­ing the­ol­o­gy of prayer because it’s the best lan­guage I know around this some­times tricky topic.

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?

(You can lis­ten to Mary read this her­self here. It’s pret­ty great.)

I want these kids to know their prayers need not be col­lec­tions of per­fect blue iris­es, but will some­times be a few small stones, or even weeds in a vacant lot, as they go through life. Adults often have so many shoulds around prayer — I’m try­ing to inoc­u­late these kids.

Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look up into the blue space?” I ask them while they spi­ral to their center.

Take your choice, prayers fly from all direc­tions.
And don’t wor­ry about what lan­guage you use,” I tell them.
God no doubt under­stands them all.
(from “Whistling Swans”)

Mary Oliv­er is will­ing to admit she doesn’t know exact­ly what prayer is — only that it is good and can often best be accessed out­doors in nature. She calls us to pay atten­tion, to not be so very sure of every sin­gle thing, but only the real­ly impor­tant things like stead­fast love and grace and kind­ness and joy.

I watch these small faces, these ten­der souls with their great big hearts, and I think they are as ready and deserv­ing of Mary Oliv­er poet­ry as any of us. And so I read it to them as they draw their cen­ter­ing spi­rals in pur­ple sand.

To those adults who ask the earnest ques­tion, “But do they under­stand her poet­ry?” I gen­tly ask, “Do you?”

These wild and pre­cious lives on my zoom screen give me such hope.

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Joyce Sidman
3 years ago

Melanie, I felt calmer just read­ing this. Yay for you, read­ing Mary Oliv­er to chil­dren! Her hon­est, hope­ful, lyri­cal voice is per­fect for them. What a great ser­vice you are doing for these young souls.

candice ransom
3 years ago

Poet­ry should nev­er be con­sid­ered “over the heads” of chil­dren, espe­cial­ly Mary Oliv­er’s. If mean­ing slips past (read­ing poet­ry on their own, with­out guid­ance), the lan­guage stays with them.

3 years ago

Your post made my heart sing! I love Mary Oliv­er’s poet­ry, and imag­in­ing those small faces lis­ten­ing and pon­der­ing her words is per­fect. Thank you for sharing.

Anne Howard
Anne Howard
3 years ago

Bless you! As a “prac­ticer” of prayer and an Epis­co­pal priest, I am grate­ful for your courage and creativity.