One year ago today, a light-filled soul left her body and flew high, high into the sky, leaving behind her, a sparkling trail of words strung together impeccably so – words infused with mindfulness, hope, beauty, and wonder. Those of you who have read Oliver’s work very much know what a treasure she was, a rare gift in a time when slowing down and looking deep is getting harder and harder to do, unless done so with great intention .
I love Mary’s work for the reverence she brings to everyday life. How her poetry prays to blades of grass, meditates on the ordinary nature of living, and how she spent her early mornings in the pink haze under canopies of trees filled with chirping nests and jumping squirrels. I also appreciate it in a special way as it reminds me very much of my late grandmother, coincidentally named Mary, who also died last year. Not a poet but a farmer’s wife, she woke before each dawn and spent hours alone in the still darkness of their living room, praying and meditating before the farm woke and the help hungry. She did so effortlessly, her head in her hands, rocking with the gentle sway of the spirit. This contemplative time restored her soul, I am sure of it. I looked on when I was a little girl, only if I happened to rise as early, my mattress nearby on the floor of the farmhouse I visited more times than any other place.
These still conversations she had each morning were anything but quiet in her mind, as I imagine Oliver’s conversations with the wild when in nature. Like clamoring bells and a symphony of birdsong, meditation offers us a new way of hearing things we might have normally overlooked in our hurried ways. For when we turn off or turn down one sense, others are amplified. Close your eyes and you can better smell. Close your mouth and you can better listen.
These two magnificent Mary’s have both impacted my life in tremendous ways, for they have showed me indirectly how to use my innate gifts to better appreciate what is right Now, the true present of presence in an the age of speed and distraction and endless information. Motherhood and the repetitive daily doings that accompany it are hard! Especially because most is done behind the scenes without thanks. And having someone on my side, showing me with grace, the beauty hidden among life’s everyday things sure gives me a much needed perspective – and a fresh breath of air to boot.
By their devotion and example, I have learned how to better appreciate the quiet mysteries of the morning. How to go outside when life indoors proves too much. And how to value moments of solitude and to hold space for deeper listening, for in those pockets of time are where we can truly hear our inner song.
In remembering Mary Oliver on this cold and icy Midwest day, our Friday homeschool day, I decided I’d share a few of my favorite poems with you. Stella and I read them this morning, her with a mug of hot tea and I, milky coffee. I read the words and she sat near and listened. Afterward, we shared how it made us feel. A wise thread of appreciating the simple things in life began weaving its way through her work, and it was pretty neat getting to share that moment with my daughter.
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?”
from Why I Wake Early and Devotions
Imagining a sea of grass, each one a prayer, makes me smile. I also treasure the phrase, “untrimmable light” and how Oliver refers to herself as a scholar of the ordinary. What a concept! Furthermore, I believe more and more that each of was was born to do just as Mary suggests, “to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world” for within that net of grace we can truly live with greater abundance to offer ourselves to the world and deeper connection to enrich those ties that bind us. Take a moment to consider a world where people defined this definition of “success”. Oh my. What changes we’d make today, right now. What a difference it would make. How differently we would see our days, our homes, our relationships.
It Was Early
“It was early, which has always been my hour to begin looking at the world
and of course, even in the darkness, to begin listening into it,
especially under the pines where the owl lives and sometimes calls out
as I walk by, as he did on this morning. So many gifts!
What do they mean? In the marshes where the pink light was just arriving
the mink with his bristle tail was stalking the soft-eared mice,
and in the pines the cones were heavy, each one ordained to open.
Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.
Little mink, let me watch you.
Little mice, run and run.
Dear pine cone, let me hold you as you open.”
From from Evidence and Devotions
The line, “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed” is one of my absolute favorites of any line ever to be written. To root oneself in the present moment and acknowledge all that there is to be grateful for is what living a meaningful life is all about. Not getting ahead, but digging into Now. Not about stuff or schedules or vacations or parties in the future, but this moment. This string of seconds suspended in time. About seeing the gifts in washing dishes in a dirty sink, grateful for hands to scrub and water with soap to clean. Grateful for the food that grew to make the meal that dirtied that plate, for the myriad of blessings that bound the simple moments our lives into books of thankful memories.
“When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden was finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing – the reason they can fly.”
Whenever I need a kick in the pants to declutter or pare down, I read this poem. It does just the trick to get me motivated in the mindset that to live with less is to live a fuller life. I love the idea that birds can fly because of this intentional way of moving through the world with oh so very little. Her short phrasing, “Things!” always sends a spark up my spine and moves me in the right direction. So many things around us these days. Time to declutter, again.
Lastly…another poem about the morning, her favorite time of day, because this poem always stirs me, leaving me feeling more alive.
Why I Wake Early
“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make 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 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.”
From Why I Wake Early and Devotions
I cannot pinpoint my favorite part of this poem because I love it all. It’s the profound affection she has for the mysterious creator who made the mornings that I love the most. The imagery of spreading morning over the fields feels like a warm blanket, the tulips with faces personified like you, like me. I love how Mary looks at the world and sees within it blessings abound. How her words are light-filled, like balloons full of hope lifting us up as we read, even though inside might be feeling otherwise, like stuck or heavy or sad. This poem is one I read when I feeling those things and am in need of a refresh. It pairs well with out Rest Retreat, and would be a lovely practice to start up if you too need a reminder that starting your day in happiness, in kindness, begins with reverence and attention.
What are some of your favorite Mary Oliver poems? Do share! xx Amanda
Sarah - Dearest Amanda,
I read this in the morning with wet hair and a cup of tea in hand!
I have read and enjoyed your beautiful blog for many years now and draw such comfort and inspiration from your gentle loving outlook.
I was moved to tears and goosebumps reading this post this morning.
I am not familiar with much of Olivers’ work but one poem that I adore, and brings me to tears every time is Wild Geese, especially when I hear the recording read by Mary Oliver herself.
Thank you for your beautiful reflections that help me with my own journey of self discovery and growth and I wish you well and much joy with your impending arrival.
Beatrice - “You must never stop being whimsical” “you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life”
Lara - I love the citations by both Sarah and Beatrice.
So hard to pick a favourite by Mary Oliver, but one that comes to mind immediately is ‘The Journey’, for the role it has played in my own life, in my own healing journey. What gifts she left us….
Thank you for these pockets of peace you bring to the web, Amanda. And for helping us remember the soul nourishment that is poetry.
With warmth & gratitude,
annmarie sewell - LOVE Mary Olivers POETRY.
Dianne Grob - I came across your blog through grace alone. I would love to receive them all. You are a beautiful writer