That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” (Mary Oliver, Long Life, Forward)
We’ve all been reading a number of poems by and tributes to Mary Oliver since her death on January 17, 2019. And, to be honest, that’s exactly what this is… Another tribute, another ode, another homage.
I’ve often thought of her as my spiritual friend––reaching out beyond the page, sitting with me in sadness, elation, and especially awe. Her writing has a way of pointing the reader to wonder in the most simple moments and profound ways.
I was on a lunch break when I heard the news of her death. It was raining and my mind was detached from everything at hand, so I opted to go be with her in some small way by finding her in a bookstore nearby. And, of course, we all know Mary Oliver isn’t found indoors. Her work is steeped in the great outdoors from her long walks collecting clams, to her undeniably sacred practice of paying attention.
There are plenty of things I think about when I consider Mary and her canon of work: I am drawn to an endless list of poems, prose, essays, and even her instructional books for writers and poets alike. But, in an attempt to be true to what this poet-teacher has taught me, I want to focus on how and where she guided me in paying attention.
Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
(Mary Oliver, Red Bird, Sometimes)
Mary taught me that when I fail to live headlong into life––and love, I’m as good as being breathlessly underground.
In her love and adoration for her partner of over 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, she pointed to the many ways she noticed her. In The Whistler, she writes of her beloved M: “All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. It was thrilling… I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too. And the devotions.” And in Long Life, she says of her life with M: “The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.”
How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by
like this and
no more words now
(Mary Oliver, Felicity, How Do I Love You?)
Mary taught me about how loving the world takes many forms, all of which take uninhibited attention.
From “Yes! No!” Mary declares, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And from her book Thirst, “My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – equal seekers of sweetness… Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
Mary taught me how recognizing the divine, alive in nature, isn’t just a way to live, but the only way to be more fully alive.
In her almost liturgically rhythmic words about nature, she shares in “Morning Poem,” “each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” And, in Upstream 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.”
Mary taught me the ways in which paying attention to myself can be an opportunity for growth and change.
From her short poem, “The Uses of Sorrow:” “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” And then, from “Wild Geese,” “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Finally, once again from Upstream, “Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”
In these ways––paying attention to love and the beloved, paying attention to the natural world, paying attention to ourselves––is not just about a life well lived but a life whose legacy is love. In her book Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
Mary Oliver’s life testified to what it means to live into that great prayer of attention. She quite literally walked the things she wrote, lived the things she spoke, and always paid attention.
So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later. And always I wanted the “I.” Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted them — the “I” to be the possible reader.
Thank you, dear Mary. Your courage in life perpetuates courage to live headlong in all of our lives.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world
(Mary Oliver, When Death Comes)
Now, I picture here being reunited with her darling partner Molly Malone Cook as they wander the great outdoors of the unknown.
RIP, MO (1935-2019)