by MK LeFevour
I never liked poetry. I believed if you had something to say, just say it – don’t couch it in fancy words or with metaphors that nobody understands. Then along came a well-meaning friend who loaned me a book of Mary Oliver poems. It sat on my nightstand filling me with guilt each night that I didn’t open it. After a month, my friend asked how I was enjoying the book and I lied, “Oh, I’m loving it!” But not being a fan of lying and knowing my friend would eventually ask which poem was my favorite, I broke down, opened the book to a random page and read Oliver’s most loved poem, The Summer Day. My life was changed by that one act of opening myself up to this woman’s understanding of loss, sorrow and hope.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her poetry. But what brought her to winning such prestigious awards was growing up in an abusive house where her only escape was to wander the woods near her home. In nature she found her true home and healing for a broken heart.
What we have in common with Ms. Oliver and each other, is that we live in a remarkable place of nature that others might experience as inhospitable. But what we know is that despite living with the constant danger of getting poked by plant life that doesn’t want to be touched is that we are blessed to live in a desert where we are surrounded by daily wonders – the magic and power of a monsoon storm, the collared lizard doing push-ups on our garden wall, the roadrunner stopping on a dime and changing directions as she spies us coming down the wash, the hummingbird taking on all comers to protect his feeder , the coyote sauntering across the road and then turning to give us a smug look before he bounds away into the brush and javalinas who, if you sing to them, will stop and lay down to listen until you’re done with the song.
Mary Oliver’s poems bring me comfort. But why are they comforting? I believe it’s because she continually reminds me to pay attention to the world around me – from the grasshopper to the stars. And when I bring my attention out from the hamster wheel of dark thoughts in my head to the beauty of our desert, I am brought into awe and wonder and that brings me healing.
Ms. Oliver gave these instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. My wish for you is that you find your Mary Oliver who can speak your pain and bring you words of guidance and comfort.
Let me leave you with words from another poet, Rumi, that I’ve come to love (yes, open your heart to one poet and others will push their way in).
Grief can be the garden of compassion if you keep your heart open through everything. Your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.