When I find out Mary Oliver has left this earth, I’m on the edge of 28, I’m drinking tea on the couch, the snow is falling sideways, and I can tell somewhere above the thick cloud cover, there’s sun and an expansive stretch of blue sky. It’s 10-something in the morning. I learn she won’t write another word and I beeline for my book shelf. The reaction is visceral — I need her words to keep me afloat.
I’m more calm once I’m holding them — A Poetry Handbook, a gift from my dearest Sokhang who saw in me something holy; and Upstream and Devotions, gifts from my mother who is my light and the who/why/how of me. I text Meagan and Morgan and say did you know? and no one does because she just died this morning and the NPR article is just starting to make its rounds. In the article, the author writes, “She won a legion of loyal readers who found both solace and joy in her work.”
In college my roommate had lines from Wild Geese on her walls in the Pink Door house. It was my first taste of Mary Oliver’s words (thank you, roommate soulmate). Later I would dig through the Poetry Foundation’s website for more. She was the first poet that made me love poetry — and believe that what I wrote could be poetry too. In my quietest deepest soul, I wonder if I might be able to write and live like her one day. Ruth Franklin describes her poems as prayers. As I dropped my belief in God, Mary Oliver’s poems filled the holes.
When Sokhang gave me A Poetry Handbook, I might have cried. I read it in my dorm room in Yosemite where, if I peered carefully out the window on the left, I could see a tiny sliver of Half Dome. I wrote a lot in those lonely, beautiful days. I used to read her books with a pen in hand, but I’d underline the whole damn book. When David fell and left but didn’t quite die, her poems rocked me to sleep through the grief and the wailing. And when he woke up, they were the foundation for my joy, my relief, my gratitude.
I’m not exaggerating when I say Mary Oliver saved my life. She connected me to some amazing people and to a magnanimous side of myself I didn’t yet know. My heart is in my throat knowing she has put her pen down. If I still believed in God, I might lean into hoping she’s in a bright green meadow somewhere in heaven, continuing to write as she walks (she walked with a notebook — how perfect is that?)
But she carved a path that wasn’t that for me — a belief in something powerful that felt truer than God and innate since I read her first poem. She gave me gratitude and a million reminders to pay attention.
Thank you for being and writing and sharing, Mary Oliver. Wherever you are, may you rest in peace.
And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden.
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.
A few of my Mary Oliver favorites…
- This interview she did with On Being on listening to the world.
- Peonies… “This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart…”
- Wild Geese (of course)
- The Journey… “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice…”
- “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”