For Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died today. I want her to know I am grateful. She, more than many, shows how the practice of poetry saves lives. The practice of poetry protects us from pedantry and meanness. Habits of poetry lift us from ugliness, inattention and boredom.

Mary Oliver offers patience and attention, how to be present in the world while living in it. I will write my whole life hoping for one clear poem, one paragraph or a sentence so finely observant, so clear and true. Mary Oliver tells us not to suppose or daydream, but wake up and see.

I once foolishly tried to explain the meaning of “Wild Geese” to a class of community college freshmen during a library orientation. I recited for them “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.” They didn’t get it because I didn’t get it.

I thought I understood but only now, when the world is breaking my heart and I am feeling the limits of my own time and possibility, do I begin to understand. We are animals, you and I. We are not separate from the rest of creation. We are as confused and limited and small with no idea where we come from or where we are going. And yet, we can rise. We are not lost in our despair. We have a place. We belong. We are reminded, time and time again that we belong. But only if we listen.

Only if we listen.