Brow Beat

Wild and Precious Life

My mom, Mary Oliver, fancy smart people, and me.

Photo illustration of Mary Oliver, as seen in California in 2010.
Mary Oliver
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

There was a time when I would copy out poems on fancy paper and send them back and forth to my friends in the mail, or put them up on the walls of my dorm room with gobs of Blu-Tack. I liked the poets who gave me that oceanic feeling—joyful poets, easy to meet halfway: Walt Whitman, Rumi, and lots and lots of Mary Oliver, who died Thursday at the age of 83. I liked: “In the glare of your mind, be modest./ And beholden to what is tactile, and/ thrilling.” And: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my/ life/ I was a bride married to amazement.” And of course: “You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the/ desert repenting.”

Then I grew up a little, and the internet arrived, and while, early on, my brother would email me a poem (sometimes Mary Oliver), we stopped doing that a long time ago. I started thinking less about whether things moved me and more about what things meant. I felt too clever for Mary Oliver, who was after all a little bit too adaptable for the purposes of online self-help inspo culture. I didn’t like the way yoga teachers would read a bit of Mary Oliver (or Rumi; not enough Whitman) at the beginning of class, or at the end, while we lay in savasana. As Ruth Franklin noted in the New Yorker in 2017, fancy smart people who work at the New York Times have never thought Mary Oliver was good. So why would I?

My mother, age almost-71, has loved Mary Oliver for years. I texted her Thursday to tell her Oliver was dead, and asked what some of her favorite poems were. “Snow Geese,” “The Journey,” “When Death Comes,” and “Wild Geese,” she texted back. My mom is not half woods-creature, like Oliver was, but she’s close. She posts photos on Facebook updating us on the status of leaves, grass, wildflowers, and ice. She keeps the family traditions—picnics at the lake, walks in the graveyard, an asparagus bed. She loves day lilie, and plants so many that the garden is bursting. In person and online, she tries, again and again, to express how much it all inspires her.

Mary Oliver, from “Mindful”:

Every day
I see or I hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight

My mother is not resigned to Trump, or climate change, or being far from her children and grandchildren, or getting older, or death. In the morning, she props up on the kitchen counter a selection of a stack of index cards she’s made with Sharpies and stickers. Some are little reminders about daily life—“Go to the dump,” “Practice Italian”—and some are inspirational quotes from Rumi, Pema Chodron, and Mary Oliver. This trove of index cards, this perfect combination of striving and striving-to-relax, is my mother in a jar. I don’t know if she has this Oliver on a card, but she should: “I Worried.” “I worried a lot,” Oliver writes:

Will the garden grow,
will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the
earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

A small litany of worries later, Oliver writes:

Finally I saw that worrying had come
to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Yes, Mary Oliver’s poems explore a slate of themes that can, if flattened down to Instagram proportions, sound like meaningless platitudes. Nature is beautiful, and opens the soul, if only you’ll pay attention! All things are one! Trust in the universe, and embrace its impermanence! But the work itself isn’t like that. It can feel repetitive, but another theme of hers is the repetition of it all. The older I get, and the more I get over myself, the more I understand that you realize these things over and over again, in different ways, over the course of a life, and they feel a little different every time. As Oliver wrote in “Mysteries, Yes”:

Let me keep my distance, always,
from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep my company always with
those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Mom just texted again, to add a poem to her list—“The Summer Day,” the one with that famous final line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” “For a while, I contemplated putting this on my gravestone,” Mom writes. Part of me thinks: No. You will never die. Another part thinks: No! That’s way too Pinterest-y. But I just read a lot of Mary Oliver, and so I respond: “♡. Just spent a bunch of time with her poems today, and cried.”