January 11, 2021

Remembering Mary Oliver: 3 Offerings on Love, Grief & Celebrating Life.

It was dreary that spring night and the trees lining the suburban street bent and swayed.

As we exited the car, I placed three, thin paperbacks in my purse. They were titled: Upstream, Dog Songs, and Thirst.

As we walked toward the smartly lit storefront, my shoulders trembled and without my companion’s nudge, I might have walked past the Narberth Bookshop. But then I noticed the hastily made sign: Poetry Filibuster: Remembering Mary Oliver.

We were greeted by the merchant, and although I’m a friendly sort, my eyes couldn’t find hers. After a pause, my companion asked where the reading was, and she pointed us to chairs semi-circled in the back. We nestled among the towering bookshelves into wooden seats with quilted cushions.

My left knee started to shake. Why was I so nervous? Maybe because this felt more like a memorial service than a reading. And I’d been in the supporting cast of two in the last year or so.

Within minutes, we were surrounded by a group of 15. Many were holding familiar books marked with folded corners and miscellaneous items.

As the reading began, mere months after Oliver’s January 17, 2019, passing, the standards were shared. Vivid verses describing a “wild and precious life,” a “bride married to amazement,” and “your place in the family of things.” When the silence grew long, I waded in.

First, from Upstream:

“Adults can change their circumstance, children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them. Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore is an alleviation and a blessing.”

Even though I’ve read those words many times, my eyes never leave dry.

How did she do it? What took her beyond? What was her blessed alleviation? Her poems quickly answer: time spent in nature, reading, and eventually, writing. These activities gave her life meaning—and a way to love, grieve, and process.

From Dog Songs:

“A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them…How strong was her dark body! How apt is her grave place. How beautiful is her unshakable sleep. Finally, the slick mountains of love break over us.”

She buried her dog among the trees, which were also lifelong companions.

And the subject of my favorite Oliver poem: “When I Am Among the Trees,” is from Thirst, written after the death of her partner:

“’It’s simple,’ they say,

and you too have come

into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”

On that spring night, I filibustered only these three offerings. But could have shared more. Because even after (and maybe because of) Oliver’s dysfunctional childhood, and the death of many beloved beings, including her partner, she continued to write—over 30 books in all.

These offerings allowed her to process, celebrate, and shine.

May we all do the same.

As we remember the anniversary of her passing, please share: How have Oliver’s words, and her resilience, changed and inspired you?

“But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do—determined to save the only life you could save.” ~ Mary Oliver


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