I came lately to the poetry of Mary Oliver–much too lately–and it is with great sadness that I mark her death. Her words will live on and I rejoice in that, yet it grieves me that I’ve missed experiencing the power those words wield for most of my life.
I love poetry but don’t often write it. I find it supremely challenging to pare ideas and conversations down to such small handfuls of words, and am in awe of how others can do so, honing truths to points so sharp it is impossible to ignore or dismiss them.
That’s what Mary’s poetry did for me. Her seemingly simple words about seemingly simple things forced me to stop and notice both what she was describing as well as its further implications for my life and world. Her poems contained such raw honesty, entertained such deep questions, and yet did so with such overwhelming grace that I always felt welcomed and loved even as I engaged those probing inquiries and complex issues.
When I heard she’d died I kept going back to what is probably her most quoted line, from her poem The Summer Day:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
What usually captures my attention is the first half of that line-the “Tell me, what is it you plan to do” part. But as I sat with those words over several days, I found myself pulled even deeper into that dialogue. I realized that planning -while important-is not the most important thing.
What matters most–and drastically affects what we ultimately choose to do–is the place from which we start. Even more important than naming what we intend to do with our lives is claiming who and what we are before we ever give a single thought toward those plans, whatever they might be.
That turn of phrase Mary uses, (and no, I can’t think of her in the past tense), “your one wild and precious life”, is the language of love. Whatever else we are, what other labels we wear, our lives are - we are –precious; read: “of great value, greatly loved and treasured; beloved.” Created by the Holy, in the image of the Holy, we are loved without question and without end.
I need that reminder at times. As Jean Valjean says at the end of Les Mis, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” When I lost Bill that tangible reflection of the Holy disappeared from my daily life. Without that constant reminder, even though I know the unconditional love of the Divine is always there, it can be difficult for me to perceive and feel embraced by that love.
So thank you, Mary Oliver, for your words of reassurance.
Regardless of the season of life you’re presently in, no matter your career path, your job title, your daily responsibilities, your plans, the labels and descriptors that have been assigned to you by others (or yourself), you are, above all things, precious and loved.
And whatever you do this day, may you engage life from a place of love.
“…You are precious to me, and honored, and I love you…” Isaiah 43:4