For Mary Oliver with Gratitude

Here I sat… in the days and nights following the news of poet Mary Oliver’s death, feeling that there is no one in my world (alive) with whom I can speak of this loss.  But along comes an email from a soul-companion and deeply connected traveler on the way. My niece, Katya, who is one embodiment of her beloved uncle’s poetic longing writes to say that I am not in the least alone with this. That Mary Oliver means much to her, too. She reminds me that she first heard Mary Oliver in Philip’s recitation of the poem, “Wild Geese.” The poem he chose to speak to her during a painful and pivotal time in her life. In fact, she says and continues to say, that poem changed my life.

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Knowing that the poet’s voice will sing no more, her spoken words no longer point and prod and remind is a loss that feeds the dark wolf that prowls outside my heart’s door these days. But knowing that the poet leaves her words behind and that her words reconnect me with Philip and Katya and my heart has me just the slightest bit less bereft tonight.

Reading of Mary Oliver’s death on Thursday, January 17, I immediately went in search of my favorite poem, “The Summer Day.” I hadn’t read it in a while and had forgotten what precedes the final compelling lines – the lines I’ve loved since Philip first read them to me long ago.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Those lines that Philip often quoted to remind us of what we are here for… are at the end of a poem that whimsically evokes a delightful, funny, sweet, and sensitive communion with a grasshopper. To see poetry in a grasshopper is oddly comparable to seeing eternity in Blake’s sunrise. To find joy in the tiniest of creatures invites me to reconnect with my one wild and precious life. To spend an evening in the presence of Mary Oliver’s poetry and prose chases the wolf from the door, lights the fire in the hearth, brings back light and love and warmth.

The death of this favorite poet and the death of (my favorite) mother — both in these last 2 months bring back … yet again, the questions that seem to arise with grief: what matters? what touches my heart? what opens me to love? what makes life beautiful? Carrying on is what we’re expected to do, what we expect ourselves to do. But there must be meaning. And there must be love. This return to Mary Oliver’s poems helps tonight. Re-learning to notice; pausing to see the smile on a face; stopping to be gratefully enlarged by winter sunlight gleaming across frozen water. The minute particulars that open into worlds of wonder and tenderness. There is so much to admire, to weep over, says Oliver in her poem “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac.”

So, tonight, I am grateful to Katya for thinking to get in touch. To Philip who introduced me to this poet, who sang life into poetry and poetry into my life. And, of course, to Mary Oliver for all the wonder and tender regard she brings to my heart and the world.

Love and deep appreciation are winging out to every poet’s heart between and beyond the worlds tonight … and always.

“The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Impulse to Share

He always said all the leaves would be fallen by his birthday.

On the day before what would have been Philip’s 71st birthday, I finished reading my book (sounds so narcissistic!) for the first time. I mean reading it all the way through without my critic’s eye and editing pen in hand. It’s been a surprisingly good few days of reconnecting with myself and with Philip. It’s given me another go at reflecting on who I’ve become …who I’m becoming after three and a half years of time and tears.

As far as the book itself, I’m greatly relieved to find that I am pleased with it. (Not counting the endless little changes I would make … ad infinitum … ad nauseum!)  I have my intrepid editor, Molly, to thank for the cohesion and flow. The book pretty well says what I’d hoped it to say and reads as I’d hoped it would. This is a gratitude and satisfaction I’ve never known before. A tangible work begun and completed.

But I’ve also had another somewhat unexpected reaction. I wrote the book following an impulse to share what befell Philip and what transpired within me in the months, weeks, days, and hours before Philip’s death … and, then, afterwards. At that time, I particularly wished family and close friends to better understand what had happened. Now a desire to share with a wider, unknown audience has arisen. I long to extend the reach of the book, to offer it as support to others who are grieving – hoping that it may provide moments of reflection and opportunities to voice the multitude of emotions and conflicts that come with this uncharted territory. I find myself wishing this book to be of service. And I’m wondering how I might do that. Any thoughts would be greatly welcomed and appreciated. Written and given with love today…on Philip’s birthday.

A Blogger’s Excuse and Inching towards Publication

To care deeply and offer care. To breathe into the moment.  To pause, go slowly, give thanks, say, “I love you.” I’ve been learning this again … and again in these past weeks since my mother went into the hospital with an infection called cellulitis that was quickly made worse by pneumonia. On September 9, I flew quickly to New York to be with her. She’s been learning to breathe more deeply and consciously, learning to do that which has been done habitually and shallowly for 95 years. We are learning patience and trust in the body’s inherent ability … and desire … to heal, to live. Continue reading “A Blogger’s Excuse and Inching towards Publication”

Process: Grieving and Writing

Writing and grieving have intermingled so fully, I can no longer disentangle them.

In these past weeks, I have felt as though I entered into stage 742 of grieving. Who knew – despite reading all about it – that this would be such an ongoing and many-sided experience? You read it and hear it – grief changes you … always. But to live it is to know something in a way you cannot know through others even as their words ease and confirm your own experience. In many ways, those words have been like a hand held out in the darkest time of my life. In other ways, I continue to learn grief in real time, in real emotion and body. Continue reading “Process: Grieving and Writing”

Denial and Hope

I read this:
“I did not yet know how many ways there are of denying what it is too frightening to admit.”
-Iris Origo

The memory of Philip lying unconscious and collapsed in his hospital bed is burned into the picture gallery of my mind. Officially a hospice patient as of that Saturday afternoon, I was told he’d be moved to the hospice wing on Monday. So, late that night, I went back to the hospital to sit with him again and kiss him goodnight. He was still alive and with me, while death remained somewhere abstractly down the road.  However, when I got to the ICU, the night nurse said he would die by morning. Shocked and disbelieving – denying what was too frightening to admit – I changed my plan. I wasn’t going anywhere that night. Continue reading “Denial and Hope”