When I learned of Mary Oliver’s death on Thursday, it felt for a moment as if time had paused – just long enough to notice my breathing, the tears coming, and the impulse to reach for the others who taught me to love her.
Not that the teaching to love her was hard work. She came easy to me, surprisingly so for someone who at the point I’d met her work had experienced some failures around English classes in general, was terrified of further failure, and specifically didn’t get poetry. She wasn’t obscure; I loved her for it.
But beyond her accessibility, she lived in my world – or one very like mine.
The first poem of hers I ever read is entitled “August” and chronicles blackberry picking, an experience which was so a part of my own childhood, and not in the organized family outing kind of way, but in the solitary wandering along the treelines and into the woods way. It was blackberries, black raspberries, mulberries, first the white blossoms, then the tiny white nubs, then red sour unripe berries, and then the perfect shiny blue-black ones the birds didn’t get to yet. My parents own almost 25 acres of land in rural Michigan surrounded by other large plots of land owned by neighbors. As a kid, I would often wander back into the fields on my own to explore in every season, rain and shine, coming back home to draw maps of where I’d been, staining them with tea to look old, and then making up stories about what happened in the places I’d been.
She spoke my language, in other words. She knew the pleasure of finding blackberries along the treeline, and that thorn scratches on the arms were a small price to pay. She said what I knew in my bones – that there is a lot of world to discover, a lot that is beautiful and sometimes left unnamed, and a lot to be lost when we fail to pay attention.
I have felt those losses in the past few years, as chunks of old forest around my parents’ place are gone, certain treelines thinned out to sparse brows around the fields, and edges made square.
But beyond her focus on nature and the observable world, it was often her lines about the body that moved me most.
In the poem above, the line, “all day my body accepts what it is” has always stuck with me – that in the experience of blackberry picking, or of being a human being in the natural world in general, is this sense of rightful place in the created order. Out in the fields, my body leans into what it is: a body, with flesh, with impulses, with form, with its own knowledge that doesn’t rely on cognition and arguments. In her, I sense both an exaltation of the body, one that stands in contrast with the specific restrictions and suspicions of the body so present in my particular Christian upbringing, and yet a humbling of the body too, one that keeps it in its place.
Perhaps her poem that has formed me the most is her “Wild Geese.” If you know her work, you know the line I’m reaching for: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
The language is breathtaking. But more, these words are nothing less than revolution.
If the Christianity of my childhood taught me anything about the body, it was this: You definitely cannot let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Whatever you do, don’t let it love anything.
The body was deceptive above all else, could not be trusted, would lead you wrong and deep into sin every last time. Whether food, or sex, or even things like simple expressions of affection, you had to be so careful. To feel oneself desiring something, wanting something, was a red flag for God’s displeasure.
But that line also cannot be taken out of context. In our household, we have a running joke (which is half serious) about apologies. When I began living in community, as it turned out, I apologized for near everything – any possible misstep, burdening, or inconvenience, any tense turn in a conversation, so on, and often even for valid needs. Progress has been slow. But in the beginning, I would often hear in response “Why are you sorry? Are you a sorry person?”
Her words at the beginning speak into what has been a life-long struggle:
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 despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
My whole life, all I ever wanted to be was good. The thing I was reaching for always was a sense that I had done the right thing, been good enough, but hadn’t needed too much or burdened too much. And my despair (you can tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine) was that I was failing, always.
Just under the surface of my existence are a handful of mostly unspoken rules I have lived most of my life by: Do not be a burden, and do not need for needs are burdens. If you have by accident been a burden, apologize and make amends immediately. Don’t take up too much space. Be nice always and don’t hurt others’ feelings. Concealing the truth is better than honesty, if honesty will complicate things. Be one with the path of least resistance. Do not desire, because the devil is prowling always waiting to devour. Your voice matters not at all if others are displeased with what you have said. Don’t have emotions.
If you know me and the enduring struggle to get myself into some deep conviction of my own belovedness, all the above makes a certain kind of sense.
I remember reading this poem for the first time, and being both utterly relieved, undone even, and yet suspicious, a bit naughty, like believing such a thing would put me on a path toward damnation.
And yet in time, that line, “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” has become a mantra that I have tested out a little. More, the ending lines about loneliness and about having a place in the family of things have at moments been a deep reminder to me that my existence in this world is good, that I belong – if no where else, then at least in the wild. In Oliver’s words, I hear echoes of my friends who love me, who call me back time and again from death into life, from despair into hope, from loneliness to belonging – who say “Shannon, you’re okay.”
And all of this above helps you understand then why a recent poem of hers is a challenge to me, a kick in the tail toward living well – and not only well, but possibly living the gospel in a certain way.
“Moments” begins, “There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled,” and ends, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life/ even, possibly, your own.” For someone whose highest personal value has for most of her existence been exactly caution, Oliver’s words press me toward integrity as a human being in this world.
She has been for me a certain kind of prophet, a spiritual guide and companion in the wild and natural margins I often feel myself drawn back to, both literal and theological, reminding me of what is true and worth patterning my life toward. And I know I’m not alone in this.
This is nothing near the fitting tribute she deserves, but instead is a somewhat random chronicling of the gratitude I feel so deeply for her, and for others who love her too. Reading her work, praying it at times even, was in her own words, “a doorway into thanks.”
One of the deep joys of her loss, if something like that can rightfully be said, was learning just how many people close to me loved her too, and entering together into a communal thanksgiving for her life and work. It was a day that in the midst of grief, also felt magical. This is, no doubt, a testimony to the work her work has done in all of us.
As a dear friend said about her at the end of the day, Lux perpetua luceat ei.
Let perpetual light shine on her, for she so often in her words and work shone on us.