“Be alive until you are not” wrote poet Mary Oliver and alas, she is no more. And the world just got one great soul poorer. She left us a rich legacy of reminders to keep our astonishment and wonder alive, to partake in the unspeakable beauty of this world that she took the trouble to speak, knowing her words would always be so much less than the kingfisher, clam or goldenrod flowers she kept company with. I know of few people who were as consistently and deeply connected to the living things we share the planet with, who spent so many mornings of her life awakening with the dawn and walking through the woods of her Cape Cod home, notebook in hand, to capture a bit of the uncapturable.
I imagine her wholly at peace with the natural conclusion of her days well-spent, each one of 83 years. And yet there is the loss and grief knowing I’ll roam the bookstore in search of her next book and it will not be. Though she wrote to the very end and each time, as eloquently, if not more so.
Reading of her passing on an online obituary, I suffered the shock of seeing below the article the those horrible faces that people the news—Mitch McConnell, Ann Coulter, Guiliani, the ever-present Trump and the like. It’s extraordinary to think these demonic people are in the same species as someone of Ms. Oliver’s grace, courage and loving presence. Their bitterness and soul-ugliness dominate our national discourse and indeed, few Americans will know who Mary Oliver is or was or mourn her passing. She herself could not help but be aware of their presence, affected by their smallness and hurtful power, but daily she made the wise choice of choosing better company—her beloved dogs, the wild branches of trees, the bones of whales. We would all do well to remember her example. Do what we must to halt the ever encroaching tide of evil and ignorance, but not get swept out in their undertow. Make the daily choice of kissing or dancing or singing even if we’re not choir-trained, to sit and watch God’s creatures being wholly themselves and remember the beauty that we are and can be if we but pay attention.
The perfection of the natural world and our possibility of wholly belonging to it were Ms. Oliver’s constant themes. Both are gifted to us for free but we stubborn mortals refuse to notice or take the time or trouble to remember. Her work was made to remind us:
I know you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
And so she did. And now her words will come no more. I, for one, will miss them.
R.I.P., Mary Oliver.
PS I posted a short obituary on Facebook and noticed that all the comments of people who shared my love of her poetry were women. So I wrote:
“I can't help but notice no men have claimed their admiration yet in the comments. Come on, guys! We are larger than the swagger and the gun-tote and the greed and the power hunger. And we have a generation of boys to initiate into the other rooms of the soul. I hope we have space in our lives for the wonder, astonishment, tenderness, eloquence and fierce courage that Ms. Oliver lived.”