Mary was one of the greatest teachers about death and grief that we will ever know because she was one of their finest students. And though the courage to not look away is everywhere in the poems, I couldn’t possibly know the true depth of Mary Oliver’s courage until these last few years as she battled a series of cancers, each more aggressive than the last. There is no need to go into the list of diseases, treatments, hospitalizations, and indignities. I won’t talk about the hours in the chemo unit, the cheerless fish tanks, or the despair Mary felt about the “chemo brain” that was barring her access to language.
What I will tell you about is her resilience. Her faded blue jeans and Carhartt jacket and bright argyle socks. I will tell you how she’d wink at me from across the waiting room. How she’d tell me not to get too sad. Let’s not go there just yet, she said one day when she caught me crying on the drive home from the hospital. I want to tell you about how she handled the news of the feeding tube and I really want to tell you what she said the day she decided to refuse all further treatments and let the lymphoma run its course, but when I do, the words get replaced by tears, so I will tell you instead about the wild geese as they circle and land in the field just across the street from where I sit writing these very words, right now.
Those who knew Mary well know that she continued to use a typewriter up until the very last of her writing days, and they also know she started each day reading a passage from Rumi as an invitation for her own words to come back. I think now of her process. I think of her putting the paper into the typewriter, adjusting it to the right height and then typing a line she loved. Then another, and then another until the page was filled. And then I see her pulling the paper from the typewriter and with great focus cutting the lines into neat little slips of paper and putting them in her begging bowl.
Day after day after day, she pulled one out and thought about it, and hoped the words would come. Astonishing enough—the intention and the discipline. But what strikes me now is her fearless determination to keep finding the new thought, to find the words that said the world a little better, the ones that saved my life, and yours.
And the thing is, it was an act of love for each of us, for she didn’t need her poems nearly as much as we do.
the dark night of the soul is welcome here…..
inquiry for today~ may you surrender to your own lonesome call of understanding…..
Not quite four a.m., when the rapture of being alive
strikes me from sleep, and I rise
from the comfortable bed and go
to another room, where my books are lined up
in their neat and colorful rows. How
magical they are! I choose one
and open it. Soon
I have wandered in over the waves of the words
to the temple of thought.
And then I hear
outside, over the actual waves, the small,
perfect voice of the loon. He is also awake,
and with his heavy head uplifted he calls out
to the fading moon, to the pink flush
swelling in the east that, soon,
will become the long, reasonable day.
Inside the house
it is still dark, except for the pool of lamplight
in which I am sitting.
I do not close the book.
Neither, for a long while, do I read on.