I am done with election chatter. I wrote last week’s column, a truth I hold, and voted early. Done. Time to move on even though the election and all that hangs on it is still in motion all around us. Mary Oliver, please.
As prolific as she was, and as popular as she is, it is still possible you do not know her. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and there are lines from a few of her poems that millions have memorized as if lyrics from a platinum album. According to the National Endowment of the Arts, between 2012 and 2017 the rate of adult consumption of poetry grew by 76%. Mary Oliver may be a primary engine for that growth.
Anyway, this isn’t really about Mary Oliver, rather something she said. Listening to a 2015 radio (NPR) interview from “On Being,” I was pulled out of the election morass and returned to a focus I prefer — nature, and even human nature.
Responding to a question about her childhood, marred horribly by an abusive father, she said, “It was a very bad childhood — for everybody, every member of the household…and I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble…But I got saved by poetry, and I got saved by the beauty of the world.”
From a young age, Oliver went looking in the woods for beauty and then writing about it. It was the looking and listening, the breathing in and touching the world all around us, as closely as possible, that saved her life and gave us so many wonderful poems. In the same interview she observed profoundly: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Getting out of the house, if possible, and turning our attention toward the intricacies at our feet and at the end of our arms, will imbue us with a buoyant spirituality that just keeps rising up through calm and storm, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow. For example, as I was walking the dog this morning, I noticed a very large and intensely green grasshopper motionless on the cement. Immediately a famous line in an Oliver poem about a grasshopper came to me, but hers was about a vibrant summer day and a grasshopper eating sugar from her hand. At my feet was a testament to winter, to mortality, and relentless change — in spite of temperatures more like late September than November.
Reflecting on the dead grasshopper, I was reminded that mortality need not be a fearsome grief all the time. There is beauty in it as well as the sorrow of loss. The grasshopper will be folded into the earth and repurposed — nutrients for the green leaves and green grass it may have once eaten. As Oliver notes more than once, the thing we are dies but none of the parts that made up our whole, die. We know this from physics, everything that dies becomes something else. That very fact is the most beautiful poetry of all.
So while the election chatter reminds us of the angels and demons of our better and worse natures, nature itself reminds us that both life and change are relentless. What we are will change whether we resist or promote it, and the very mortality of what we love makes up the promise of of our hope.