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Mary Rose O’Reilley

“I’m fascinated by the nature of images, in the broad sense: how do these internal memos function in the life of an artist? Most days, I have nothing much better to do than whittle away at some task while waiting to be kidnapped by the unconscious.

It’s no job for a grown-up. Therefore, I try to look busy: teaching school, gardening, tending the occasional flock of Dorsets, playing fiddle duets, throwing pots on a wheel, working in Quaker ministry.

I taught at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, for thirty or so years. One of my mentors in graduate school, Ihab Hassan, posed a query to us teaching assistants—it was at the height of the Vietnam War—’Is it possible to teach English so people stop killing each other?’ There went my life.

In response to that question, I kept trying to form my classrooms around Elias Hicks’ image of the Peaceable Kingdom. Indeed, my first book was called The Peaceable Classroom. Elias Hicks, in the nineteenth century, composed new versions of his archetype over and over, and so did I: through Radical Presence and finally The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life (Heinemann). Just as one can trace through Hicks’s serial paintings his disillusionments, re-enchantments, cavils and compromises, so these three books trace the evolutions/dissolutions of my teaching career.

I quit—or stopped out—to raise sheep, and wrote a book called The Barn at the End of the World: the Education of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, and another called The Love of Impermanent Things: a Threshold Ecology (Milkweed Editions). I became an ACLS Contemplative Studies Fellow and then a consultant with the Society for Contemplative Mind. Later I went back to teaching with renewed subversive energy.

It’s the contemplative in us who minds the images: be that person a monk, a beat poet, an artist, a musician. It’s a small job in the universe, but feels right it it’s meant for you. I’ve been lucky enough to try out a lot of vocations, but a call to more inward life, mostly evaded, has been at the root. I wrote two books of poetry, Half Wild and Earth, Mercy (LSU), during those last, experimental, years of teaching.

I was born in North Texas. My Dad was a pilot. I fell into a geography of light, all of us looking to the sky for direction. Later, I learned to look to the earth.

Now I find myself on a hermit’s path. I live on a rural island in Puget Sound; this life, rather tough as it is—you have to split wood—evolved from a logic of images that rose within. I would have preferred to stay home, as I still call it, in Minnesota, tending my fruit trees.

Instead, I’m surrounded by forest, not sure of what will walk out of there.”