Yesterday we received news that the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. My social media feed this morning is full of posts of her poetry.
Some time ago, I think it was around 2005, my work took me to Bennington College in Vermont where Mary Oliver taught and wrote from the early 1990s to 2001. On one of my trips I stayed in a university house that Mary Oliver lived in during her Bennington years. Having known of her poetry, I thought this was pretty cool. Oh, if “the walls could talk” I thought, wondering what poems were crafted here that had rippled out and into other houses -- homes and houses of worship.
Out the backdoor there was a trail that meandered through woods and alongside a marsh. I took the trail on two snowy February mornings and walked along the marsh wondering if this was the same walk she took daily that became the inspiration for Why I Wake Early (2004) with its poems about crickets, toads, black snakes, watching the deer, and finally, the importance of dwelling in happiness. Friends at Bennington would regale me with stories of how she would walk the woods and come back with a completed poem. Rumor had it that she stashed pencils along the trail in the fork of a tree’s branches or in a crevice of a rock outcropping so she could compose a poem while she walked the hills and trails.
Mary Oliver’s poems were widely embraced which may be why her poems and life is trending this morning. They speak to the hunters who take to the woods for peace and connection as much as for trophy. They speak to the conservationists and environmentalists striving to preserve the woods. They speak to the suburbanites trying to navigate the terrain of their lives. They speak to all who are on the lookout for meaning and wonder. Her poems paid close attention to the natural world and in plain language conveyed larger thoughts that carried with an almost teaching, therapeutic, and homiletical quality. Thus, her wide appeal to individuals facing loss and trauma or wisdom for a new direction or for words that would transcend. I recall her poem about wild geese (“Wild Geese”). She had such an appeal for me with my love of nature, and a preacher in search of the right words to share that will move and connect us to a transcendence much bigger than ourselves, especially when my own words seemed empty. Today I am thankful for the life of Mary Oliver and I encourage you to, like her, to be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. You might want to consider stashing pencils so you will be sure to write it down and not miss it when you observe it.
I leave you with one of her poems:
Why I Wake Early
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the miserable and the crotchety -
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
By Mary Oliver (Why I Wake Early, 2004) Beacon Press