When I heard that Mary Oliver died my first thought was “Who will be that voice in my life now?” and the second was “Only 83?”
We begin every writing day together:
Me and a million other writers, I’m sure. I’m now so grateful Mary existed when she did and I found her when I did. May I call her Mary even though we have never met? I did write her a fan letter and she didn’t reply, and I once asked her to blurb a book, and her agent sent a form letter “no,” but I have not held that against her since in her poetry she was so generous and prolific.
She’s right you know : It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. Nobody can create one of those again. Just “patch a few words together”, and most importantly: “This” — writing and living a good life — “isn’t a contest”. It’s a chorus.
I read her obituary in the New York Times, and it was okay, the photo was nice, but I had hoped for something more defining, or surprising, to learn something I didn’t know about her that indicated what made her tick beyond what can be gleaned from her writing — but then again, she was a very private public person. How much do I need to know? I loved her for her words, and that is the highest tribute a writer can get, don’t you think? I loved that she was brave enough to write about dogs and walks and dumping cut flowers in the sink on a bad day, and mornings and evenings and thrushes and snakes and God too. She was unapologetically reverent of all creation.
One of my favorite Mary Oliver poems is about when her dog Percy came back– she meets his ghost on a beach walk– “he was not sailing on a cloud. He was loping along as if he’d come a great way.” Of course he had come a “great way” words are what make a poet. Then there is that poem that has been read at many funerals, including one of my friend’s, “When Death Comes,” in which Mary says she wants to enter the door of what’s next “full of curiosity” and reminds me- and now you– that,
“When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”
(Read that twice before you start ranting about the news today.)
In her book on obituaries, The Deadbeat, Marilyn Johnson observes the weird synchronicity of the placing of obits in newspapers next to each other. How often there is a connection in the lives ended on that day or that week. This morning my iPad version of the New York Times showed me Mary’s obituary on the same screen line as “Watch These Stink Bugs Hatch in Unison.”
Well. It seems that Mary too, has come back with a great wink.
Of all the news on the front page, down there towards the bottom, I thought, this is the one Mary would have me click on. This is what I bet she would have been fascinated by this morning, after her walk, and assuming she even read The Times or clicked on-line– These little bugs all hatching from their perfect eggs at the same exact time, and how a researcher has learned they do this all together after one signals the others with a minute vibration only the bugs in their tiny eggs can hear– and get this: researchers are now focusing on the role of vibrations as communication in animals from elephants and kangaroos to crickets. One more delightful reveal: stink bugs don’t stink to the people who spend time studying them: “sometimes they smell like some fruit,” a specialist on the insects told The Times.
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.” – Mary Oliver