In praise of Mary Oliver


When I first met Mary Oliver, I was living in Virginia. I was in a raw season in my life, a time of digging and scraping at my soul.  I’d discovered buried pieces of myself, strands and whole chunks, and was trying to unearth them. They were painful days, wrenching at times, my confusion and prayers and tears my bedfellows.

A gift came to me in those days, and the gift was poetry. I’d loved poems as a teen and young adult, but they had been on a back shelf for more than a decade… lodged so far back they’d all but vanished. God brought me a poet friend who revived my interest, and as an opening present she bequeathed Mary Oliver to me, lending me several of her collections. I would let my eyes run across the lines by lamplight as I lay in bed, receiving the words and images as a balm. Mary’s steady observation of the world, her outward gaze and heart-ward questions, her stubborn hope… they spoke to me.

Mary’s “Wild Geese,” one her most famous poems, became like a mantra for me in those days. I memorised it the day I first encountered it. Here are the beginning and end:

“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…

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.”

My soul needed to know, in those days, that it didn’t have to be good. It needed to know that simply being was enough. It had strived to be good for a long time and was reeling from how insufficient the results felt. Having my soul’s loves, its very self, validated brought freedom, and so did affirming that it had a true and irreplaceable spot “in the family of things.” I was treasured and I belonged; Mary and her wild geese assured me of this. They assured not my head, which had long known these truths as pious platitudes, but my soul. Poetry, after all, is language against which the heart has no defense. (~David Whyte). When the soul comes to learn what the head knows perfectly well, this is the place of transformation.

Other Mary Oliver words moved me, too, but they mattered less than the woman herself. She was observant, reflective, diligent, living a life as quiet as the sky at dusk. What profoundly touched me was her bravery. Because of her intense privacy she almost never consented to be interviewed, but I was moved by what I discovered in this interview (one of several exceptions).

Mary had a terrible, painful childhood that included abuse; she left home at 18 and never looked back. She suffered terrible loneliness; poetry was her salvation. She had a lifelong partner, Molly Malone Cook, a photographer; they were together more than forty years. In the years following Molly’s death, Mary emerged from behind the walls of her house. She became involved in her community as she hadn’t before, and she started seeing a counselor. She was 70 at the time, and she did five years of work to understand herself, accept her past, and find freedom. At age 75, she said she’d finally “come into her own” and was the happiest she’d ever been - despite her bereavement. The words she wrote reflected some of the new connection with God prayer. In this last era of her life, she wrote this poem called, “Outside our Church: the Eucharist”:

Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine.

They have been blessed.
What now?
The body leans forward

to receive the gift
from the priest’s hand,
then the chalice.

They are something else now
from what they were
before this began.

I want
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds

or on the shore,
just walking,
beautiful man

and clearly
someone else

On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.

Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.

How many people begin a therapy journey at age 70, I ask you? Not many. Mary’s bravery, her quiet resolve, to undertake the journey of examining her wounds and coming to healing - it humbled me. When I met Mary I was meeting with a counselor myself for the first time, unearthing my hurts and releasing them, coming to new freedom. Mary, a fellow traveler, touched and inspired. She could walk out this bravery, and so could I. And so it was that the courage and truth-wrestle within Mary’s heart turned her ever more toward God. And so it was, life always begetting life, that Mary was still publishing new anthologies when she was 80.

Would that every 70-year-old would have courage and resolve like this. Would that new life would spring forth from each of us, as we embrace truth and display the tenacity to keep growing. Would that 70-year-old me will be growing and learning, doing the hard inner work, as Mary modelled. Would that I would hold fast to, and continue living out of “that wild, silky part” of myself, as Mary called it.

Would that each of us would soul-wrestle so beautifully, and with an eye toward the work and presence of God. Jesus, make it so. Thank you, Mary, for your gifts to me and so many; God rest your soul.

<The lead image was taken on our Virginia farm. It seems a fitting one to commemorate the naturalist and beauty-lover Mary Oliver, and honor the season of my life in which I met her..>