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Mary Oliver

Photo: Rachel Giese Brown

“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

I quote Mary Oliver very often. I love her poetry. I love her reverence for nature–no, her delight in every last bit of nature. I do love nature, too, but there are many creatures who draw from me revulsion, rather than reverence. These include snakes, poisonous or not (which she seemed to admire nonetheless), ticks (ugh), spiders, and snapping turtles. Thus, she is above me in her unchecked love for the natural world. And you would not find me falling down in the grass or weeds to observe a grasshopper or some other insect. What if there’s a snake in there? Or, surely, ticks? Maybe it’s partly because she was so accepting of every last thing that she is a particular inspiration for me. I’d like to be as free with my love and admiration–but I’ll just say right now that I cannot imagine ever being even okay with snakes.

Her writing, though! Her gorgeous writing! Her poetry is lovely, simple, and understandable. No obscure words, tricks, or invention. For this she was criticized but also for this she was loved by so many. She loved wandering alone in the woods (well, with a dog) and she paid exquisite attention to her surroundings, always. She hid pencils in trees so that she would have one if needed, for jotting down an idea or observation. She loved writing. She loved dogs. Right up my alley.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – “Summer Day” in House of Light

I’ll just say what I plan to do. I will follow her life instructions and a)pay attention to my world and others b) I will allow myself to be astonished by the ordinary and the extraordinary and c) I will tell others what I’ve seen and learned. Seems like a pretty good life plan to me.

For many years Mary lived in beautiful Provincetown, Massachusetts, way up at the tip of Cape Cod. I traveled there once by myself and adored it. There is a shop there called Womencrafts that happens to carry my cards. Oh, I have often wondered, did Mary Oliver ever pick up a card of mine and read it? Might she ever ever have bought one to send or give to someone? My heart beats wildly. Or might someone else have bought one of my cards and given it to her?? It could have happened. It might have happened. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. She lived there for many years and that shop has had my cards for many years. I like to think that somehow in the vast world of coincidence and chance, magic and possibility, since I have many of her books, she might have received or at least read one little card of mine and perhaps smiled. She would have to have smiled or my whole fantasy is ruined.

“If I had another life
I would want to spend it all on some
unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn’t mind being a rose
in a field full of roses.

Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.”
― Mary Oliver, “Roses, Late Summer”

What would you like to be? I love the idea of being a little wren with a big, hearty singing voice and a pretty brown outfit of feathers, tail upturned. Or maybe a dog, a small dog who lives in a house like mine, who takes many outings and has many secret adventures, running back panting and full of excitement.

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
― Mary Oliver

If you’re looking for my cards or art, you’ll find all of that on my website. And if you enjoy these letters, feel free to forward this one to anyone you think might like it. Finally, you’ll find past letters and poems here.

Thanks for listening,

P.S. MerryThoughts is the name of my first book, out of print at the moment. The word is a British one, referring both to a wishbone and to the ritual of breaking the wishbone with the intention of either having a wish granted or being the one who marries first, thus the “merry thoughts.”

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