My friend Mary Oliver

There has been much talk of Mary Oliver this week and it is now time for me to add my memories of her too.

When my mentor first introduced me to Mary Oliver over 10 years ago I was struck by the way she seemed like an old friend. I loved the way she wrote about everyday things with such meaning!

I had been lamenting to my mentor that I felt like my spiritual practice always went out the window when I would go tree planting and I felt a little guilty about it. She told me it would be ok if I didn’t spend a long time reading my bible or journalling in the morning as there are different seasons for everything. She helped me let go of the legalism of my youth and step into a freedom where everything is spiritual and everything can speak to me. She sent me off planting with a collection of short poems and encouraged me to read them on the long drive to work each morning as I bumped along in the back seat of the pick up truck.

It was so liberating to sit for long periods of time with those words and see them come alive and breathe life into my soul. This was one of my best loved poems from Mary Oliver.

My work is loving the world by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird - 
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

As I sat with Mary I began to wonder about her life and when I researched her I found out her soul mate was a woman named Molly Malone Cook, whom she had shared her life with for over 60 years! I was shocked that my mentor (the dean of a Christian Grad school) would suggest such a poet. I immediately wondered if I should stop reading her and not see her as credible anymore if she is a lesbian! I decided to just let her words speak to me as they would… and they did!

Fast forward many years to today. I have come a long ways in my spirituality and where I look to find meaning. The whole world is alive and speaking to us every moment of it’s beauty…as Mary would say, our work is to pay attention! I have come a long way as well in my openness to women being partnered with women. I hope that at the end of my life I will be able to say these same words about my wife as Mary did of her partner Molly, affectionately referred to here as M. We are well on our way to having that kind of confluence!

Watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely…

We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a rich and abiding confluence. ~Mary Oliver

I have been heartened this week to see so many different people sharing their love of Mary Oliver. I have been surprised sometimes by people enjoying her even when they seem to be from more conservative circles. Sometimes I worry that I’ve lost credibility in conservative circles because of my sexuality… but if Mary Oliver can find this broad of a following, and she loved a woman… I know I am in excellent company. May our lives speak for themselves!

If you’d like to read more about Mary’s life with Molly Malone Cook this is a great article.