I don’t remember when or how I first heard about the poet Mary Oliver.
I do remember sitting in my friend Kathy’s house on Long Island, reading one of her poems out loud and crying. Kathy had given me the book for my birthday. That was in the early 1990’s and over the years we would exchange her poetry books on birthdays and holidays.
Back then, Mary Oliver’s poems spoke to the loneliness and longing in me. They touched the hidden part of myself, that I didn’t even know was there. They reminded me of what and who I wanted to be, but didn’t have to courage or awareness to realize.
Two weeks ago, driving home from my Bellydancing class, I called Jon and he told me that Mary Oliver had died.
I thought how I didn’t know Mary Oliver, the person, but that I knew her poems. And I’ll have them no matter where she happens to be, in this world or another. I thought the she lived a good, creative and long life. I thought that her death really wouldn’t affect my life.
But still I cried.
Mary Oliver’s poems have been a part of my life for such a long time. And I’ve grown with them.
I no longer feel the “…loneliness and its consequences: longing and hope” from her poem “The Snow Cricket”.
And though the sense of wanting to belong, wanting to be loved for who I am,is not as desperate as it used to be, it still pulls at me when I read “Wild Geese.”
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”
But I did eventually “reach for the latch” put on my coat and leave my desk, As Mary Oliver commands in her poem “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”
“To put one’s foot into the door of the grass, which is
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
not be afraid!”
I was afraid, but I did it anyway.
I found the courage to “let the immeasurable come. Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.” as Mary Oliver pronounces in “Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith.”
But her poems didn’t just touch me when I was reading them. They entered my everyday life.
Every time I pick flowers from the garden, put them in a vase and “let them take their own choice of position” There is Mary Oliver’s poem “Freshen the Flowers, She Said“.
When I walk in the woods I am reminded that walking and observing was her work and it is a part of my work too.
When I got home from Bellydancing that night, Jon and I lit a candle and read our favorite Mary Oliver poems to each other. For me, it was like taking a walk thought my life. And when I got to “Mornings At Blackwater”, I cried, as I still always do when I read it.
This was the poem of transition for me. The one that speaks directly to my awakening. And the actions that I took and continue to take to evolve into the person I truly am.
“So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
I went to the harbor of my longing and continue to go the river of my imagination and I’m finally living my life.
Mary Oliver’s words are as alive to me as they ever were. I can go back to her books that I’m sure I’ve read from cover to cover, even more than once, and discover a poem as if I’ve never heard it before. And there are many I have never read. Mary Oliver gave us enough words, ideas, observations and feelings to fill infinite lifetimes.
That night, as I was looking for the poems I wanted to read to Jon, I came upon one that spoke directly to who and where I am now.
If I ever read it before I guess it wasn’t at the right time for me to hear it, because I didn’t remember it. It’s called When I Am Among The Trees. And it makes me believe that there will always be another Mary Oliver poem for me.
When I Am Among The Trees By Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.