In Balance With This Life (Some thoughts about Mary Oliver)

I once saw a hawk standing imperiously in the middle of the sidewalk, eating a mouse. The mouse was still alive, tucked under one claw, its skull pierced and bleeding, the bird dipping in for more and more. With each dip, the mouse’s body shuddered and bucked. Its small mouth gaped, then closed, then gaped again. I could hear its wheeze.

It was alive.

Or, perhaps it was not alive, and it was simply the remaining pulses of a defunct electrical system. A last-ditch short after the power’s been cut.

The hawk took another mouthful. The mouse shuddered. I stood on the sidewalk holding my daughter’s hand – she was five, then, and we were on our way to the bus that would haul her to Kindergarten and haul her home again. She narrowed her eyes at the hawk – it was a beautiful thing. Brown and red and shining. It focused its bright, yellow eye on her with an expression that said, indisputably, Find your own dang mouse, Bub.

“When something eats something that is alive,” Ella said, “do they eat alive? Can you eat alive?

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.

“Can you eat dead?

“Most of what we eat is dead,” I said. I tried to pull her along toward the bus stop. I didn’t hear the far-off jangle of the wheels, so we had a bit of time. Also, to be frank, the way she stared was starting to creep me out. “I suppose,” I said, “when we eat things from the garden, they stay alive for a while. The cells still respirate. They still make sugar. They still divide. The lettuce we pick is dying, but when we eat it, it’s still alive.”

“That mouse is dying,” she said.

“I think it’s dead.”

The hawk, as though listening, turned its eye to the mouse. It hadn’t gutted the poor thing yet, and suddenly seemed in no mood to do so. It shook its head, adjusted its shining wings and flapped suddenly, gracelessly away. The mouse remained on the ground. It was quite dead. We walked toward the bus stop. I could hear the far-off diesel engine. It was coming.

“When we breathe in,” Ella said, “we’re alive. When we breathe out, we’re dead. Our hearts are alive, but our skin is dead. Our hair is dead too.”

“The dirt,” I said, “Is made of dead plants and dead bugs and dead animals too. But the dirt is alive. It’s filled with billions and billions of tiny organisms that make the food for the plants to grow. The dead cells on your skin protect the living cells underneath. Those dead cells are your protectors.”

“That’s gross,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “Sometimes, there’s really no difference between alive and dead. They’re just two different sections of the same long road.”

She gave me a sidelong, skeptical glance. “You never make any sense,” she said.

We stood at the bus stop. She crouched down and hugged her knees. “If part of me is already dead, does that mean that I’m in heaven right now. Is being in heaven the same as being with my mom?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But if I had to decide what heaven was like, I’d make it right this second. Right now on this corner. This moment with you.”

“You’re weird,” she said. “But I love you anyway.”

“I love me anyway too,” I said. “Also, I love you. Very, very much.”

The bus arrived. She had been, for the six weeks prior to that day, WAY TOO OLD to give me a kiss goodbye. But she turned and kissed me anyway. Briefly, and without ceremony. Then she slid inside the yawning bus. It shuddered, burped, and took her away.

I have found myself thinking of this story because of Mary Oliver.

I’m sure all of you have read Mary Oliver and have, as I have, significant moments in your lives in which her poems have played a major role. I know for me, there were some dark times in college, and later under the weight of post-partum weariness, and even later during the most terrifying depression of my life in 2008, in which Oliver’s poetry was a warm, earthy, living hand, curled tightly into my own, and leading through the rough terrain. And all the while saying, “Look, the grasshoppers!” And “Look, the early blossoms like crisp sheets drying on the line.” And “Look, the geese! The geese!”

Almost thirteen years ago, I got married to the most wonderful person in the world, but we got married under a cloud: my sister had been in the hospital for a month, and had returned a mere shadow of herself. My father had suffered a major stroke. My father’s two best friends had nearly lost their lives to sudden, and random illnesses. The wedding itself was a hastily done affair, planned because of an unplanned pregnancy, and put on hold when the pregnancy almost ended in a rush of blood and sorrow – not once but six different times. It’s a miracle that Ella survived. A true and real miracle.

And so it was in that cloudy place that, during the ceremony, my beloved Sister In Law stood and read “The Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese
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.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.
~Mary Oliver~

It’s a funny thing about poetry. We do not expect it to change us. We do not expect it to be alive. And yet there it is, again and again, a thing both alive and dead. The dead protecting life; life giving life to death; a single moment of beauty announcing our place in the family of things.

I just learned today that Mary Oliver is seriously ill. Some of her friends have launched a tribute blog, in which people can submit and post moments in their lives in which Oliver’s poetry has touched them, changed them, made them whole again. I encourage you to read these, and submit your own. I encourage you to buy another book of her poetry. I encourage you to live the life that her poems tell us we can live: utterly gorgeous, utterly precious, utterly wild.


6 thoughts on “In Balance With This Life (Some thoughts about Mary Oliver)

  1. I think, more than any other author I have loved, Mary Oliver’s poems have spoken and continue to speak to so many different stages of my life – the past, present and future, and help me make sense of this wild, precious life. I open her books at random whenever I need…something, and I always, always find some sort of answer or peace or question there. She has been such a gift to me.

  2. What a wonderful post. And yes, in fact, Mary Oliver’s poetry has got me through some bad times. (Wild Geese, in fact, is the poem that spoke to me most clearly, vividly, and even, in a way, loudly.) Her poetry has also ushered in some very good times in my life.

    Thank you, Kelly

    • I totally agree with that – she’s both nurse and midwife, that which soothes and that which brings forth. God, what a gift to the world that woman’s work is, which makes me even more troubled that she’s so ill.

  3. After my son died by suicide in Oct 2006, I’ve experienced what Kelly wrote: “Sometimes, there’s really no difference between alive and dead. They’re just two different sections of the same long road.”
    My relationship with my son continues. Death forced me to say “good-bye” and “hello,” to get to know him once again. He talks to me and even occasionally appears. Yet I can’t physically hug or kiss him anymore.
    When we leave those we love, even if we plan to be apart just several hours, I urge everyone to say “good-bye,” (which to me means “God be with you” ) and MEAN it when we say it. If we work at ending our relationships, we can work at beginning them again when we say “hello!” If we don’t end a relationship often and with sincerity, that relationship will always be hanging out there in some incomplete state. How many times have we heard a survivor mourn, ” I didn’t get to say good-bye!” which sounds the same as “I never got to say I love you.”

    • Oh wow, Carol. Just WOW.

      Thank you for this. I love how a single poet’s work gives us an opportunity to open wildly. “Here,” we say, “this my one beating heart.” Thank you so much for your story. I’m terribly moved by it.

  4. Such the great post. I’ve been looking for ways to tap into my unconscious more, and it wasn’t until I read this post this morning that I realized reading poetry is like taking a syringe full of the unconscious, and mainlining it straight into the brain. Boom.

    Amazon was kind enough to sell me two of Ms. Oliver’s works, which I will be injecting shortly.

    Thanks yet again for the inspiration.

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