Thursday, February 4, 2021

Advice from Mary Oliver

Like many, I’m struggling hard to figure out what is going on with these people who are wreaking havoc in our country. What is it in us that causes some people to overcome childhood trauma and find their larger, more beautiful self? What is it that has some mindlessly accepting and continuing abusive habits passed down from parents/ teachers/ political leaders and others choosing to resist them, to draw a line and say, “Here’s where this stops.” And amidst my struggle to understand is my judgement— yes, this difficult thing happened to you and yes, some difficult things happen to all of us, but the question is what do you do with it? Do you carry it down the street and dump it on your neighbor’s lawn? Do you let it pin you down to the ground without any effort to throw it off? Do you wrap it up and give it to your children for a present?

So parallel to trying to understand is my finger-wagging admonishment—“Hey! You’re an adult human being. Take responsibility. Get to work. Believe me, no matter what happened to you, I doubt it was anything close to Billie Holiday’s life and look what she did.”


Mary Oliver, a sublime poet of quiet fame, appeared to have some trauma in her childhood from her parents. At the least, they didn’t understand her and there are some hints that there may have been some sexual abuse from her father. Her survival strategy was to escape to the surrounding woods into the loving embrace of trees, flowers, bugs, creatures who were precisely themselves and gave her permission to be the same. As an adult, she made a discipline of a daily early morning immersion in this world and then another discipline of coming back home to tell about it in her poems. She took responsibility for her own happiness, consciously chose not to blame others, listened to the world and cultivate kindness over rage and hatred. 

No matter who you are and what happened to you, why can’t you do the same? If your life is not the fairy tale enchantment you once hoped for it to be, shake it by the shoulders and do what you can, do what you must, to walk hand-in-hand with it down the yellow brick road to your happiness. And (as she captures so forcefully in the last line) stop complaining about things like “too much government” while collecting your Social Security, Medicare, driving on non-pot-holed roads, sending your kids to public schools, etc. 


Here’s Mary’s advice, excerpted from her poem Evidence:


…I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by

this adventure– your life—what would do for



and where are you, with your ears bagged down

as if with packets of sand? Listen. We all

have much more listening to do. Tear the sand

away. And listen…


Let me put it this way– if you disdain the

cobbler may I assume you walk barefoot?



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