It has been with some sort of cringe that I’ve read the same Mary Oliver quote with increasing regularity- seeing it as tattoos, word art at big box stores, and terrible older greeting card style social media posts from inspiring and notable people. There’s something about only taking the last line or two of a great poem that gnaws at me. But also, I heard her speak in a rare interview about the grasshopper starring in the beginning of that poem — how it was real, and the sugar it ate was the frosting from the birthday cake of a 90-year-old Portuguese woman — and that was always more interesting to me. But, ultimately, the cringe was and is a little bit of my own defensive jealousy and resentment. The challenge to not just breathe a little and call it living, and the reminder that I do only have this one life, and it is half over already. And, it’s wildness and preciousness is half-again (at least!) as wild and precious as it once had been.
My four-year-old son rolled over my body the night before Mary Oliver passed from this version of herself into whatever energy and matter and bits lie beyond and exclaimed, “isn’t it great to be alive?!” And, I was filled with sadness thinking of how long might he get to feel this before he realizes it’s just not, or not always. Or, well, it’s just complicated. I desperately want to never die. I desperately want to live.
Oliver died this past Thursday in Florida of Lymphoma at the age of 83. She’d spent most of her time in Provincetown, MA (a place I briefly came to know) and grew up enduring a dysfunctional family and difficult father outside of Cleveland- she’d described herself as “one of many thousands with insufficient childhoods.” She met and loved photographer Molly Malone Cook for over four decades until Cook passed away in 2005. Mary never graduated college, but went to Ohio State and Vassar. She taught a few classes as well.
I’m jealous of her peace with mortality and her poet’s path to mindfulness; Connecting to the natural world, and true love that made her feel both full and practical in partnership, and full enough to accept any end of herself or a loved one or any part of the natural world. In ‘Circles,” she writes about her contentment to not live forever. Why be remorseful of one’s own demise when you lived life as “a bride married to amazement?”
I’d spent some time in Provincetown during a time when she lived there, but would have never known of crossing paths with her. I was fourteen, and spending time with my grandmother Ruth — the hero thinker and life-liver (despite many frustrations and rage born out of the same sense of righteous justice that I’d felt my entire life) I’ve looked up to and felt a deep sense of genetic legacy with. We’d walked along in town, marveling at what a paradise it would be for my closeted childhood best friend, and how “modern” it was to not give a damn about how people live.
New England is a place to feel the awe and wonder of the natural world. My grandmother’s house was near Walden Pond, behind a lovely area called Mount Misery. It was just as lovely in my childhood as Emerson and Thoreau would have you believe.
When asked about her spirituality, Mary Oliver said she’d dismissed the Christianity she’d been exposed to as a regular part of life over trouble with the resurrection. But, spirituality was of such great interest to her that she read Rumi (the Sufi Muslim poet) every. single. day.
I am envious of her walking through the natural world with her notebooks and cigarettes — writing poignant and accessible love notes to place. And, just absolutely not in an office with fussy bosses and cycling screens flashing and yelling everywhere you turn. She didn’t make a series of choices that led to a moment in which she stopped for a breath, in middle age, to realize she needs this dysfunctional corporation for health insurance. She found herself, instead, devoting her life to listening to the world.
In “Long Life” she wrote, “What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”
And that is the call to action that reaches through my slippery, silky self and calls down deep to the child I once was — asking the same question and yearning to grow up to be a writer.
I like to think of Mary the way she would like to as that bride of amazement, even while very poor and hungry- foraging in the woods on Cape Cod for mushrooms and mussels and clams. I am grateful that the odds worked out that so many of us would come to know what was in her heart. I am heartbroken that she has succumbed to the Fourth Sign of the Zodiac this past week. But, maybe I’ll try to listen to her accessible words, served well in whole poems, whole books of poetry, and even bite-sized lines that make great word art, and listen to the world in her honor.