Loss of a Heroine, Mary Oliver

I was saddened to see the announcement yesterday of the passing of Mary Oliver, longtime favorite poet of mine and of many others in my circles. What an extraordinary woman and writer! I first fell in love with her over her poem “The Summer Day,” which asks big questions like “Who made the world?” and states big thoughts like “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” then devotes the heart of the poem to a grasshopper she has happened to meet. That’s the poem that ends with her famous question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Her close association with and powerful descriptions of the smallest details of nature kept all of her readers grounded, and she was clear in her instruction: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

She left a large body of work, more than twenty collections of poems. The latest, Devotions, was published by Penguin Press in 2017 when she was in her early 80s.

Of course, in all that work, especially work so closely tied to nature, there was bound to be something on death, because she thought about that too. She wrote: “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.”

She didn’t simply visit. She graced us all with poems that remain with us, reminding us to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. God bless you, Mary.

           

Beauty and Responsibilities

Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets, along with Hafiz) wrote this thought in her poem “Flare,” part 12:

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.

I think I shall be living in this line all day, and because of introversion, all my lovely thoughts about it will likely remain inside my head. But here’s one, before the introversion takes over.

This single line of poetry may be the best remedy for my sorrow at the loss of a 97-year-old gentleman who was my longtime client and came to feel more like a friend, despite his wealth, status, and accomplishment that were far above my own. In the writing he and I did together, my role was mostly to bring out the best in him. We continued to work together productively until a few weeks before his passing.

He embraced responsibilities his entire life, always seeking more and never feeling overwhelmed by any that came his way. And he eagerly took in the beauty of the world, visiting more parts of it than any other person I’ve ever known. On rare occasions I thought of him as a hedonist, but now I think that he simply lived mindfully.

But the reason this line of poetry will remain in my head all day is the reminder to me that my lifetime, too, will not be long enough for the beauty of the world and the responsibilities that are mine to fulfill. The way the Roman poet Horace put it was: “Carpe diem!” I like better Mary Oliver’s way of saying the same thing.