Where were you when you learned Mary Oliver died?
It was just before 10:30 a.m., pacific time on Thursday. I was finishing the monthly, hour-long Zoom call with my childhood friend, Adrienne.
Toward the end of the uplifting call with many topics, such as my Winter FIRE retreat, her weekend celebration of a friend’s 50th with 5 girlfriends from college, our ideas for how we want to celebrate our 50th this year, shows we’re watching, work stress, and hair, the tone changed when she quietly said, “Mary Oliver died today. The news just popped up on my computer.”
My body somehow felt both jittery and still.
We’re both huge consumers of her poetry, so we took our last few minutes to process a bit.
Ade told me about meeting Mary Oliver for the first time when Ade was a trustee at Bennington College and Mary Oliver came to teach poetry. The introduction went something like this:
Ade (shaking Mary Oliver’s hand): “Welcome. I just want you to know, I’m a huge fan of your work.”
Mary Oliver:“Thank you.”
Ade: “I mean, I’m REALLY a huge fan. Your work has been so important in my life.”
Mary Oliver:“Thank you.”
Ade:“No, I don’t think you understand...”
And OMG, how many of us feel this way??!!!!??
I told her that hearing of her death reminds me of something I recently read in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and shared in Winter FIRE, where the theme was Dark Sides. The archived article, Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate, quotes Mary Oliver saying of her partner of 40 years, the photographer, Molly Malone Cook:
“She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away.”
To describe aspects of her Love’s true nature, “style and an old loneliness,” unapologetically side-by-side.
I imagine that this “old loneliness” was also Molly Malone Cook’s portal into profound empathy and connection to her art and the subjects she photographed.
“When you knew her, she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.”
Similarly, I think about Mary Oliver and her conflicting nature. As connected as she was to the natural world, it is said that with human beings, she could be distant. Sharp, even.
I’m reminded that to be human is to be full of contradictions. We’re complicated creatures. And we’re not doing it wrong, or failing some spiritual test, when we feel disconnected, in some way, to our Self, to the moment, or to each other.
To be human, (and to remember that our heroines are human, too!), is to move in and out of connection and disconnection.
Expansion and contraction.
Light and dark.
Thank you, Mary Oliver and Molly Malone Cook, for sharing your gorgeous art, and your gorgeous contradictions. You give me permission to own my own path of self-expression, and my own contradictions.
The current poet Laurette, Tracy K. Smith, says of contradictions, after sharing the time when she and another young girl hit each other—in the face -- with tennis rackets in her only physical fight,
“We are full of contradictions. We’re capable of beautiful things, and terrible things, and maybe there’s a price that we pay for not trying hard enough to own up to the full picture of ourselves.”
In this moment, my heart is full of gratitude for Mary Oliver’s poems that teach me, and so many of us, to pay deeper attention, to see the extra-ordinary in the ordinary, and as the NY Times obituary ends, to be in a sweet relationship with the aliveness and wisdom of pain and joy, both:
Ms. Oliver’s verse… binds up both theprimal joy and the primal melancholy of being alive.
For her, each had at its core a similar wild ecstasy. In one of her best-known poems, “When Death Comes,” she wrote:
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.
Want to write?
Take a pen & prompt journey:
"a bride married to amazement"
2). Keep your pen moving as you write the thoughts, feelings, and images that arise. Don’t stop to think or edit. Don’t try to stay on “topic.” Follow where the prompt takes you.
3). Accept ALL that you write -- the pretty + ugly; absurd + boring. Discover what wants to be felt, known, expressed, released...