“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” A friend of mine has this message tattooed on her back. It’s a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”.
When poet Mary Oliver died in January of 2019 (at the age of 83), my Facebook feed was flooded with tributes.
For Christmas this year, I asked for “UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” (2016), since I’m not a good (comfortable?) reader of poetry. In the first (title) essay, she describes wandering away from her family as a young child, wading up a stream and finding delight after delight, beauty and joy, “lost” but ecstatically happy. “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.” Oliver’s biography describes a difficult childhood, and nature was a refuge.
Another refuge was reading. In “My Friend Walt Whitman” and “Some Thoughts on Whitman” she describes how she loved “his certainty, and his bravado” and his willingness to write about experiences that cannot be described in words, that are mystical. She also writes about Emerson and Poe.
Oliver’s reflections on “nature” emphasize relationship. In the essay “Bird” she talks about saving the life of an injured blackback gull. She knows the creature is doomed, but she keeps it alive and becomes attached to it. It is responsive. It even plays. But over time, it’s life slips away.
Some of Oliver’s work reminds me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“The Summer Day” ends with a line that echoes in my mind. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today I spent two hours out of doors. Not a summer day, but still good.