Mary Oliver, R.I.P.
“Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” she asks.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and a writer whose work sold well—no small feat for a poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January, thought poetry should not be “fancy.” Indeed, it was loved for its accessibility and practicality, abruptly pulling its preoccupied reader into a timely world of connection and utility.
For example: “I go down to the shore in the morning and depending on the hour, the waves are rolling in or moving out, and I say, oh, I am miserable, what shall—what should I do? And the sea says in its lovely voice: Excuse me, I have work to do."
Most of us don’t typically respond to misery or any other experiential burden with a lovely voice expressive of purpose and optimism. Why? Because at a very early age, we are conditioned by the social world to operate our lives with a dysfunctional ego, for example, with a fear of being ignored or scorned for the way we present ourselves. As a result, we tend to acquire an uneasy take-it-too-personally self-consciousness. This skewed perspective leads not to an openhearted and intellectually and emotionally mature engagement to the world at hand but to a retreat, to “a voice turned in on itself.”
We don’t see it happening to us and we may not know we’re doing it. Yet, as I say in my own verse, “Thus in anticipation of involvement with the, potentially dangerous hordes of humanity and of the possibility of intercourse with them, to avoid the intrusion of humiliation, accusation, ridicule, criticism . . . to avoid (as means for control) the violence of confrontation and to avoid my distaste for the eyes and judgment of others, I retreat (to a private silent discourse with myself—a brooding narrative) far from the public view."
Mary Oliver revealed in interviews that she grew up in a sad and depressed place and didn’t want to end up simply having visited this world. She said poetry—putting her lips to the world—saved her life. “So come to the pond, or the river of your imagination, or the harbor of your longing and put your lips to the world. And live your life.” And in another, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot . . . just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest . . .” She also said she loves dogs.
These things we, too, know to do and can do because the larger brain of human animals, equipped with neurons not foreordained to stimulus/response reflex, allow us to succeed in a far larger range of conditions and circumstances than other animals can. However, because of a dysfunctional ego, we are apt to think of life as worrisome if not paralyzing rather than as an opportunity. To relieve this stress, don’t many of us turn deliberately or involuntarily to alcohol, drugs, sloth, internet trolling, compulsive (and perhaps conspicuous) consumption, road rage, etc.?
On the other hand, when wisely used, the subjective space permitted by our larger brains enables us to pause, to settle, to attend and, importantly, to transcend anxiety that is counterproductive given our goals and commitments. We can learn how to re-present ourselves (to ourselves and to others) and how to build strong resources such as objectivity and grace under pressure.
In other words, we can learn how to responsibly reference, monitor and create our lives. The philosophy of autonomy and life we employ provides a governing authority capable of supporting our autonomous responsiveness to the subjective and behavioral challenges that confront our sovereignty. This autonomous voice is a unique accomplishment that distinguishes and vets the forces acting on it and creates new reaches of expression, contribution and happiness.
Let me close this post with Mary Oliver’s words: “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride, married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. Instructions for living a life: pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
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