I Need Mary Oliver’s Words


Today marks the celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. He would have been 91 years old.

Although I have a guess, I wonder what he would think about this country, about today’s world, were he still alive? Black Lives Matter–Resurgence of anti-Semitic violence–World climate change–Millions starving and in poverty–Donald Trump–War. I wonder where MLK would find hope.

It was one of those happenstance moments, a bit of luck. I came upon the poetry of Mary Oliver, who died in January 2019. She once said, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” If you spend fifteen or twenty minutes reading her poetry, you will know she did not spend her life just visiting. She took huge bites out of life and wrote about them with quiet grace and beauty. Another of her quotes tells us to “pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver paid attention.

I don’t know what Mary would say about what’s happening today. Somehow, I imagine her softly smiling, whisking the tiny crumbs of worry off her lap and kindly telling us to listen to the song of the mockingbird. I don’t believe she lived her life with her head in the clouds, not paying attention to that other side of life. Read the words of her poem The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac.

Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles — all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

I think this poet lived her life with both feet firmly planted on the ground. There is a wide gulf between the way she lived and the way many of us live. I think and want to believe she paid attention to the good, the beauty, and the grace that life offers. I imagine her softly scolding me for my worry. And in that gentle scolding, she would be right–worry changes nothing. Unlike the life of Martin Luther King, we live in a world of instant everything. It is a huge burden to carry, that of having every problem in the world accessible in an instant. I can almost hear Martin saying, “Don’t fuss–DO!”

This would probably be the point that Mary would also chime in, telling me to do what is possible to make a better world. Do something! Try, don’t just show up. Don’t just visit.

So, I guess I better do something. I need to worry, fret and yes hatefully argue less. I need to follow more of Mary’s advice. “Keep some room in your head for the unimaginable.” Maybe it’s possible to stop catastrophic climate change. To reverse such political discord. To feed and house all. To speak with kindness and compassion rather than with blame and hatred. Perhaps the unimaginable is imaginable. Maybe Martin would nod his approval. Maybe he would remind me that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Today I will stop and take a moment to consider the words and lives of these two people. I will stop and thank them for their efforts to make this world a more beautiful and just place to call home.

One last quote from Mary Oliver, spoken as a question.

 “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Go well – David