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Against the Storm

By December 4, 2013 4 Comments

I had a different topic in mind for this week’s blog, but I have come back again and again to the poem below in the last several days, and so I decided I wanted to share it.  If you’ve read some of my past contributions, you’ll know that Mary Oliver has made several appearances here over this past year; indeed, I have realized that I seem to be in a bit of a Mary Oliver season.  For that, I am unapologetic.  Poetry survives because it finds ways to articulate things that lie just beyond our normal expressing, because it helps us re-see the world around us.  That’s what this poem does for me.

I often end with a poem, but today let’s begin with it:


In the Storm

–Mary Oliver

Some black ducks 
were shrugged up 
on the shore. 
It was snowing

hard, from the east, 
and the sea 
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,

five inches long
with beaks like wire, 
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,

and settled
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also

covered with snow—
so close
they were all but touching, 
they were all but under

the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much, 
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers, 
shifted, and were blown away

out over the water, 
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back

and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
stoop there, and live.

If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?

Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.


The scene we open on is a tumultuous one—the sea “disorder[ed]” and “raging.”  It’s hostile and bitterly cold.  The ducks are buried by the snow.  It’s a world that’s bleak and unwelcoming.  Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for the landscape we all inhabit every day. 

And yet.

I love the image here of the ducks huddling together against the storm, giving warmth to each other.  And isn’t it telling that in their coming together, they not only help each other survive but are able to offer a kind of anatine hospitality.  The “feathered hedge” of the ducks shelter the little sanderlings—and not just once, but again and again as the sanderlings are blown out to sea and then fight their way back.  For the sanderlings, the ducks are reliable protection, indeed. 

Of course, the protection the ducks offer (which Oliver delicately refers to as under the “roof of their tails”) is nothing glamorous.  But it is enough.  More than, really, since allowing the sanderlings to “stoop there” lets them “live.”

Oliver calls all of this a “miracle,” a word that has its very earliest English definitions rooted in “wonder.”  Oliver’s call to pay attention, to “live with [her] eyes open,” then, comes from the acknowledgment that all sorts of testimonies of grace surround us.  But we need to recognize them—and acknowledge their source. 

In this season of Advent—a season of darkness, a season yearning for light and comfort and God’s presence in Emmanuel—where are our places of shelter?  How does the church provide a place of welcome to those blown about in the storm?  Oliver’s poem reminds us that in our own huddling together, we also need to welcome our fellow sufferers who battle the elements too.  But the poem reassures us that the welcome needn’t be fancy—just dependable. 

Or put another way: what small, unglamorous kindnesses could we offer that would be shelter to those we encounter?

The OED also speaks of miracle as an “astonishing thing.”  How might we astonish each other with kindness?



Copyright © 2006 Mary Oliver.
This version taken from




Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Sue Poll says:

    Thanks once again for a very thought-provoking start to my day. I feel like this blog provides the comfort and shelter I need each day. Thanks to you, Jennifer, and to all The Twelve!

  • Ed Bruinsma says:

    Well written and so true. It is always good to find shelter when we seek it, regardless of where. It is only unfortunate that this seems to manifest itself throughout the holidays leaving everyone with a good feeling of providing comfort and joy. But it all seems to be forgotten by January 1st for the most part, which is a shame

  • Emily says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, and for those who, like me, couldn't conjure up an image of a sanderling,
    take a look at

    For me that made the memorable poem and reflection even more memorable.

  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    Thanks, Sue, for your encouraging comments. It's a privilege to get to be included with this group of writers. And thanks, Emily, for the wonderful illustration. I agree with Ed–this has to be a year-round endeavor. Kindness is never wasted.

    Appreciate y'all taking the time to read The 12.

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