Recently the extraordinary poet Mary Oliver passed away. Her poetry spoke to me so deeply, as it did to millions. Her words were a beacon of light, shining the way forward to a richer existence. My friend Carla Robertson is a life coach and the name of her business, Living Wild and Precious, was inspired by the famous line from Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
That question just grabs you by the throat, doesn’t it? That’s what I love about her work—the images are breathtakingly beautiful, which is wonderful in itself … but then comes an observation or question that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, long and hard. Like this, from “Moments,” which gave me courage when I needed it:
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.
And this, from “Wild Geese”:
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.
When I first encountered these lines, I cried. I felt such enormous relief. I should re-read them every morning to remind myself of this vital truth. And the way she expresses the idea is so much more powerful than saying, hey, don’t be hard on yourself. She puts it so brilliantly; she was a virtuoso of phrasing.
Here is another of my favorites, which I discovered last year:
Like Magellan, let us find our islands
To die in, far from home, from anywhere
Familiar. Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.
For years we have labored over common roads,
Dreaming of ships that sail into the night.
Let us be heroes, or, if that's not in us,
Let us find men to follow, honor-bright.
For what is life but reaching for an answer?
And what is death but a refusal to grow?
Magellan had a dream he had to follow.
The sea was big, his ships were awkward, slow.
And when the fever would not set him free,
To his thin crew, “Sail on, sail on!” he cried.
And so they did, carried the frail dream homeward.
And thus Magellan lives, although he died.
Wow. It’s amazing, her ability to move, to encourage, to inspire. I’d love to know how many lives have been changed by her work. And that won’t stop with her passing. She may be gone, but her words will touch people for generations to come. She lived the vivid, all-in life that she wanted to—the life she wrote about below—and what more could any of us want? It’s certainly what I want. I’m enormously grateful that she shared her gifts with us.
From “When Death Comes”:
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.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.