Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon: A tribute to Mary Oliver

The first time I heard a Mary Oliver poem, I cried. I was about to start grad school and was involved in a women’s group in Blacksburg which met weekly to discuss spirituality, books, politics, food ~ really anything we wanted. I had asked the women to construct a “commissioning ceremony” for me, an idea I borrowed from the religious practice of anointing new ministers. (This would become my first foray into creating ritual.)

As I stood in the circle, each woman had prepared a letter, song, or poem for me and my new adventure. The final blessing came in the form of Mary’s “Wild Geese.”

I took that poem and hung it on my office wall, reading it whenever I needed inspiration or grounding. It moved with me from grad school to office to office.

Five years ago, early on in a budding romance, my beau’s birthday rolled around. It’s so hard to know what to get someone when you’re just forming a relationship. I opted for poetry books, handwriting “Wild Geese” in the front page. I wanted to remind this fellow, whom I’d already identified as someone who struggled all the time to be all things to all people, that sometimes the greatest gift you can give the world is to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Not long after that relationship ended, somehow it occurred to me that the person who wrote that beautiful poem had probably written others. I found “When Death Comes.”

There was great solace in the notion that, if I couldn’t be anyone’s bride, I could throw myself into this big, adventuring life. I would, as Mary states, become “a bride married to amazement.”

A couple years ago, when I was deep into a challenging season, Mary’s new collection of essays, Upstream was published. It could not have come at a better time. I lay in bed at night and cried and read, savoring every morsel. In the morning, I would get up and walk. I thought about the lessons she had to teach me.

Last month, one of my favorite publications, Brain Pickings, published this article about Mary and her love partner, Molly. I kept the following quote, filing it in my notes about partnership, either for myself or for another wedding I might officiate:

…perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence.

Already in the process of formulating my thoughts about Walks with Grief, I took off for a walk the next day. As I looked at the trees, listened to birds singing, kicked some trash, and considered picking it up like my grandfather would have, I thought to myself, I think that Mary will die soon. I thought about all that she had accomplished. All the abuse she suffered as a child. The beauty, honesty, and love she brought into the world despite it. I thought about the illness she had overcome. Most of all, I thought about how much she must still miss Molly and desire to be with her again.

Mary died yesterday. I heard the news as I got into my car having just wrapped up a storytelling workshop. I was working with teenage boys who’ve suffered a lot of trauma and anxiety. I wanted to run through the rain back inside and gather them together as a hen gathering her chicks, read them Mary’s words, give them her gift. Instead, I just sat there and cried a little bit. I thought about all the times she had touched my life ~ right when I needed her. I thought about all the people around the world that she has moved and uplifted with her simple, lyrical phrases. I felt a renewed conviction to help save this beautiful planet that she worshipped and washed with her walking and words.

I thought to myself, I will write a tribute to Mary. It will be insignificant compared to the many great and important ones that will happen. Yet I can’t let this moment pass without saying…

Thank you, Mary. Thank you for sharing your one wild and precious life with us.

Listen to Krista Tippett’s excellent, rare interview with Mary Oliver, “Listening to the World,” On Being, 2015.

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