Poet Mary Oliver died in these recent winter days. Her ability to see into and through the realities of the world with a keen eye to plants and animals and all things in the world that simply are without agenda, was and is a unique gift I treasure. There was a deep wisdom in her words that, as all truly gifted poets have, could name in succinct yet beautiful form those deep truths that make you nod your head in recognition and wonder how she could say so clearly what you often think and feel but can’t often articulate.
When a soul and life like hers passes from this world to the next, we have a wonderful choice. We can allow her passing to fill us with a bittersweet sadness that her voice in this world is now silent, AND we can re-acquaint ourselves with her words in a way that allows them to live more deeply in our own. A wise grief counselor once told me that part of our healing is not only in the recovering of memories we may have put away for safe-keeping, but also in allowing the parts of that person that invested in us to continue to live through our thoughts and words and actions with others. That as they gifted us, so can we gift others with the parts of them that still live in us. For me, that is a part of the gift of eternity that starts in this life. The wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes says, “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NRSV). The New International Version says it in this way, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV). God has set eternity in our(sic) hearts . . . I LOVE that. I do believe the veil between heaven and earth is thin, and if we are willing to open our hearts and spirits and minds and senses to the presence of the sacred, we may “know” more of God’s presence than we otherwise might imagine or even allow ourselves.
Poets like Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou are conduits of the sacred for me. Their innate and unique ability to turn vision into word is a gift without price. If we might receive the gifts of their words, perhaps it is much of the grace of God’s eternity come oh so near. A very dear friend gifted me with one of Mary’s collection of poems called, Dog Songs. I know, right?!? How perfect! I will leave you with some of my favorites from that work, and then a youtube video I’ve used before of an interpretation of one of her most famous poems entitled, The Journey. I hope her words might gift you on this cold mid-winter day.
“How It is with Us, and How It is with Them”
We become religious,
then we turn from it,
then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money,
then we turn to the moral life,
then we think about money again.
We meet wonderful people, but lose them
in our busyness.
We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.”
And given our current winter setting and this describes old Buddy so very much when it snows:
“The Storm (Bear)”
Now through the white orchard my little dog
romps, breaking the new snow
with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.
Oh, I could not have said it better
And this, it seems to me, is the most perfect characterization of dogs for dog-lovers:
“The Wicked Smile”
‘Please, please, I think I haven’t eaten for days.’
What? Ricky, you had a huge supper.
‘I did? My stomach doesn’t remember.
Oh, I think I’m fading away. Please
make me breakfast and I’ll tell you
something you don’t know.’
He ate rapidly.
Okay, I said. What were you going to
He smiled the wicked smile. ‘Before we
came over, Anne already gave me my breakfast,’
Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.”
-Mary Oliver, all from Dog Songs
She won a Pulitzer Prize in her lifetime – unique in that many poets’ greatness is not recognized until after they have passed. I think that gives me hope for our world. Perhaps we are getting better at recognizing and valuing gifts of great beauty in the midst of what sometimes seems overwhelming destructiveness. What I’m remembering today is that life isn’t always and only about measurements and progress and producing and consuming. Life in true abundance is about that which is most often without price – the beauty of a shared world saturated with the presence of the holy. May you be grace and grace-full this day.