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wild and precious

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

~Mary Oliver

 

Mary Oliver was one of my favorite poets. Her words were uplifting, raw, encouraging, and almost always a dare. Her examination of the seemingly mundane transformed an observation into a challenge, an urging to live a full, boundless life—bolstered by joy, propelled by bravery.

 

Oliver died today, and my first reaction was a simple, “Oh, no.” I couldn’t manage anything beyond that, until now. Her words were something I often reached for when I needed to be bold, to turn back the tide of fear that threatened to drown one hope or another. Her words were something I recited like a mantra, whenever I felt constricted by expectations, demands, other people’s fear.

 

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”

 

She taught me that it isn’t necessary to be perfect. That it is not healthy to crawl in supplication for any reason. I am not less than someone else, and sometimes forgiveness is an unnecessary thing. My life is my own, and it doesn’t have to be flawless. In fact, it’s braver and more authentic if it isn’t. If the mess and chaos of life is embraced, fully, for all its madness.

 

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

 

Joy is an important pursuit in life—chasing after the things that light us up, that illuminate our days and our hearts. It’s so easy to get stuck in the trap of surviving from one day to the next. There are always bills, responsibilities. But you cannot measure a life based on a mortgage. You can’t even really measure life in days, can you? I like to think it can be parsed out by happiness, the laughter, the uptick of a pulse, the moments of unsettling comfort. That’s a purposeful phrase.

 

You see, you’ve got to shake up your world sometimes. Otherwise, you get stuck in complacency, routine, the notion of “good enough” or “it’s fine.” But if you go after what sets your heart aflame, despite your fears, there’s a true delight in it. There’s a true ease it in, even though it might throw your whole world in disarray. That’s love. It is always, in some form, chaos—if it doesn’t in some way terrify you out of your own skin—it isn’t love.

 

“How do I love you?

Oh, this way and that way.

Oh, happily. Perhaps

I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like

this, and

like this and

no more words now”

 

You can talk about love, crafting perfect metaphors and tapping into words that resonate. That’s beautiful and powerful in its own right. But Oliver is correct, when she points out that words only go so far in conveying love. You can explain love, but that’s never the whole story. It’s never the whole picture. It’s one part of its depth, not the ocean of it. Love, to be explained to the hilt, has to be demonstrated—a creature uncaged by language.

 

That’s how I know love—something with and without hands, something that can take up a whole universe of space and none at all. Love isn’t quantifiable, but it is knowable. You can set your entire life by it, the only clock worth knowing.

 

Mary Oliver gave me this and so much more. She made me a better person and, I hope, a better poet. A light went out with her passing, a cliché in the best of times. But the thing about light is that it often carries so far. The stars shine from far away, and so Oliver will still be with us, shining in her words. We still have that gift and the wisdom she wove so deftly with them.

 

May we all be a little braver, a little bolder in her absence. Tell me what you’ll do, with your wild, precious life? I’ve got hopes for mine—what are yours?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 31, 2019 at 10:02 pm

    “You can set your entire life by it.” I love that thought.

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