Last month the world of words lost a great one. Poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. I first encountered Oliver in high school when my favorite English teacher assigned one of her books. I still have the copy of House of Light that I bought almost 20 years ago, marked up in my high school girl handwriting, the lines I loved underlined, the comments as I worked to wrestle meaning from the words. I was an English nerd with the best of them, but poetry was never really my thing. A few poets had struck a chord- Langston Hughes’ poem Dream Deferred will always sit close to my heart- but as much as I wanted to be one of those deep thinkers who was moved by verse, it never quite landed with me. Until Mary Oliver. I think a lot of people who are not poetry people are Mary Oliver people. She spoke truth and it just happened to come in the vehicle of poetry.
When Ms. Oliver died Twitter became, if only for a few days, a sanctuary for her beautiful words. Everyone was posting their favorite lines or poems. Wild Geese is a favorite (“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.”) as well as Summer Day (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”). These are lines that have nestled their way into my heart as well. Above my desk, as I type these words, is a print of the Mary Oliver quote, “One day you finally knew what you had to do and began.” As I said, I am a Mary Oliver person.
But one poem met me on a dark summer morning, and again 5 months later, marking me and changing me and lighting the path for the months and years ahead. There is one poem that I will always remember where I was when I read it and how God used those words to reach me. In a season when the Word and the words of so many “Christian writers” sounded empty and harsh, God gave me Mary Oliver.
I don’t know why I bought Mary Oliver’s new book of poetry “A Thousand Mornings” back in the summer of 2015, because even though I love Mary Oliver, I’ve never bought one of her books of poetry before. But somehow I did. And on Sunday mornings, when my family went to church, I stayed home and read. I read books by other Christians who found themselves out in the wilderness of their faith. I read novels that had nothing to do with faith. And I read Mary Oliver. And on August 10th, I came across “Hurricane”. (I know the date because I wrote it down on the page, so moved was I by my encounter with these words.) Oliver writes about a hurricane that destroyed its surroundings, “the back of the hand/to everything.” And then she speaks of her own hurricane.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
And I saw myself in those words. I saw how in that season my own leaves had given up and fallen. I had left a job at a church and in doing so had untethered myself from any connection with Church. It was necessary I knew, but I was surprised by how easy it was for me to forget. How, after years in ministry with an identity that was firmly wrapped around a faith in God, I could very easily fall into a space where I no longer thought much about it at all. The untethering unsettled me. But also exhausted me. I had been tearing down a false faith for two years, and now, it seemed like a lot of work to keep engaged. I didn’t much like the Church at the moment for a lot of reasons. And as far as I could tell God and the Church were one in the same. That very morning, before I had opened Mary Oliver’s book I had the very real thought, “maybe this is there wrong season for me to re-find God. Maybe the busyness of three kids and a soon-to-be newborn will keep me untethered for years.”
And then I found “Hurricane”. I knew what it meant to live through a hurricane of a different sort. I knew how it felt for your own leaves to give up and fall. But then Mary Oliver goes on.
But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.
And suddenly Ms. Oliver gave me hope. “For some things/there are no wrong seasons./Which is what I dream of for me.” It felt like a word from God. It felt like a grace and a palm reaching out to hold me.
I carried these words with me through the next years as I struggled to wrestle my grief and disillusionment and pain and joy and hope to the ground and redeem something new and beautiful with it all. I carried them in my heart and revisited them when I needed the reminder that this renewal may look like telephone poles but I don’t have to care. That for some things, for this thing, there was no wrong season. And like Mary Oliver, it was what I dreamed of for me.
Thank you Mary Oliver for your words and your truth, delivered in the vehicle of poetry. We are better off for it. I certainly am.