Sometime in 2016, a profusion of quotations by Mary Oliver flitted across my Facebook feed. I’m not sure what prompted it. I’d never heard of Mary Oliver before (mea culpa), but suddenly her name seemed to be everywhere.
I took the bait and bought Upstream, a collection of her essays. Upstream turned out to just the kind of book I like best, a blend of reflections on nature, art, literature, and life experience. It reminded me of Annie Dillard and Madeleine L’Engle and Rachel Carson, but it had an intensity and focus that was new to me. There was a sense of self-containment to Oliver’s writing. She wasn’t writing for me, or for any reader in particular. She was simply describing, with great and deliberate seriousness, what she saw, what she read, and what she knew.
I was disappointed that neither the bookstore nor the library had more collections of her essays.
They did, of course, have lots of her poetry.
Upstream had been a comfortable read. It was a genre I understood and frequently sought out. I thoroughly enjoyed those essays, but they didn’t surprise me.
Oliver’s poetry did surprise me. At the risk of being melodramatic, it shocked me. I feel foolish now saying it, but it had not occurred to me that a person could write poetry about such ordinary things. I had not thought before that one could describe what they saw or how they felt with utter simplicity, and call it poetry. In my own writing and thinking, I tend to gravitate to the big picture. What is the meaning of it all? How does everything connect? My temptation is always to use ten words when I should use one. It’s hard for me not to turn everything into a metaphor. Mary Oliver’s poetry told me to stop. It posed the question, “What is in front of your face?” It hinted that the answers to my questions about everything lay in what was closest to me.
Her writing stance (and living stance) was one of attentiveness. She wrote that “to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”.
Her writings about attentiveness are frequently cited by advocates of mindfulness. It has helped me to think of this attentiveness as a way of taking one’s own life seriously. What does it mean to take the flight of a bird, or the stretch of a dog, seriously enough to write it down? What does it mean to take one’s life seriously enough to write about it not as autobiography, but simply as observation? I saw something. I heard something. I thought something. I felt something. This kind of seriousness about one’s life is startling for what it asserts about the value of our lives. If every moment of our lives is worth writing about, then maybe our lives really do have infinite value.
In the writing life, it’s always tempting to ask, “Who will read this? Who will want to read this? Who will even care?” We’re tempted to devalue our writing before we even begin because we’ve already devalued ourselves and our stories and our lives. It constitutes a small revolution to say to oneself, “The sun is shining on the tree outside my window today, and I am going to write that down.”
Image Attribution: Rachel Giese Brown/The Bark