Last Sunday we hiked with the Boy Scouts. It was drizzly and foggy and 40 degrees and definitely not a day I would have left the house if I didn’t have a reason I had to. But we’d committed, so I packed the backpack with snacks and water bottles and extra scarves, and we set off – the three of us and the other three families who were there. Up the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The weekend before I’d hiked this same spot alone when it was 60 and gloriously sunny. (Thanks, Georgia winter.) And that day, my head was running all sorts of meandering directions which is a welcome moment sometimes, but this day, in the damp cold, it was hard to think of much else. Only the task in front of you gets your attention when it requires some physical discomfort it seems.
We reached the top, and the boys completed a little lesson on pitching a tent and tying knots, and Norah and I found a large rock to perch on for a while. The view behind us usually stretches for miles, but it was all fog. When they were done, we walked down the mountain the same way we’d gone up – one step at a time. Then we got home, both kids laid under blankets on the couch for a while, and lentils simmered in the slow cooker. It feels good to feel something. Even when it is cold or some discomfort or some physical exertion. It feels good to feel.
Mary Oliver died yesterday. My writer-friend texted me while I was standing in line for our annual MLK convocation. I was in academic regalia and huddled in the hallway with other English professors, and then we all filed in the century-old auditorium where the university’s gospel choir met us as we walked in to take our seats. The rousing piano and the raised voices and the row of us in black. It felt like my own little funeral for her. There are memorable moments in each life that etch their shape on your mind forever, and this is one for me. Decades from now, I will say, I know where I was when I found out Mary Oliver died. And I will think of a gospel choir singing “Break the Chains.”
I think I have quoted her here probably more than any other writer. I’ve been reading so many online tributes, all of them beautiful, and one mentioned that she was always purposely ignored by a few high-profile literary critics because her work was so easily accessible. But I know that was with purpose, and I think this was one of the million things she taught me – that simple is perfect and that simplicity can stab you right in the gut where you need to feel it. Why embellish when what is here and real and simple is what pulses anyhow?
She taught me to, as she says, let the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to float a little above this difficult world, and to keep some room in my heart for the unimaginable.
I was flipping through one of my volumes of her work last night before bed, and Jude asked me what I was reading. I explained who she was and that she’d passed that day and that I just wanted to read a few lines to make me feel better. He asked to choose one to read, so I left him alone for a while with it and came back to his insistence that we read Alligator Poem. I read it aloud for us and he asked for another, so I flipped to that old favorite Wild Geese. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.
I bought tickets months ago to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibit here in Atlanta. I’m lucky that my university has a partnership with the High Museum, and we had the place to ourselves for two hours. We could bring ourselves and one guest, and I chose Jude as a treat for him and a rare day just the two of us. I emailed his teacher to explain why he was missing school and she agreed yes! go! It has been nearly impossible to get tickets in Atlanta, and the lines are typically long. I’m grateful for what feels like outrageous abundance allowing us to do this. It was an incredible morning.
Art touches that place that you cannot get to any other way. And I know this is a very cliché English teacher thing to insist, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t much else that matters. That place, that indescribable space that is both tangible and weightless. People spend their whole lives trying to fill it, and it really is the simplest things that can occupy that hole. We all crave it. It feels good to feel something.
What I feel lately – despite the state of our national affairs and the weather and the early darkness and the weariness that bubbles up in my everyday life and the huge unknown territory in my future – is something like hope. I feel it fluttering in my chest when the gospel choir sings that repeated refrain of I hear the chains falling. I feel it when I read her line, for the millionth time in my dog-eared copy, asking me Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? And I felt it standing in the mirrored room with my favorite boy watching infinite twinkling lights. Beauty can propel me anywhere. It can float me on from here to there.
Mary Oliver’s gift was writing single lines that can slay you. But I want to share some full verses from her work “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” before I sign off tonight. She composed it years ago when she faced a cancer scare, and it speaks for itself in one massive breath that I cannot embellish or admire or talk about except to distract from it.
Thank you, Mary. For the words and the spaces between them. For teaching me how to pay attention.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of