The Cottage of Darkness


signed feb 20 2.jpg

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

On that March 4th I first sat down with “Rev,” and he in turn introduced me to the poet Mary Oliver.

The context was beyond bittersweet.  We were discussing what Jim called his “Closing Ceremonies.”  He had urged me to leave his hospital room, to which I felt bound by an iron force field, to discuss whether we could gather at this church, on our daughters’ campus.

The Reverend asked me, as sonorously and gently as any person could, how much time I thought there might be.

I told him I thought my husband would hang on to see our eldest son graduate that spring.

It turned out I was uncharacteristically optimistic, off by two months to-the-day. (I am more casually catastrophic than cautiously optimistic.)

It would be only two weeks until Jim came home for the last time.

On that March 4th, Jim was still with us, in the traditional sense, within walking distance.  This winter surely would be his last.

Either Jupiter says 
This coming winter is not 
      After all going to be 
The last winter you have,
      Or else Jupiter says 
This winter that’s coming soon,
      Eating away the cliffs 
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
      Is going to be the final 
Winter of all. Be mindful.
      Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.

Thirst, specifically, was my introduction to Mary Oliver’s poems.

A single word that is something of a bottomless vessel for a grieving person’s thoughts.

Last month Mary Oliver herself stepped “through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

On that March 4th, the Reverend explained that this collection of poems, sun gold-glanced deep blue waves on its cover,  arose from the author’s own roiling loss of a partner.

I did not know that Mary Oliver’s words would become my constant companions, within and without.

First, just a few weeks later that March, came “A Pretty Song”–more of a prayer than a song, spoken at a dark mahogany podium as my breaking heart got the better of my wavering words.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on.

Breathe, breathe,” I still heard Rev’s comforting voice to my right.

The seasons rounded back to winter and I was with one of my daughters for another service of remembrance, this time an alumni service on her campus, where a rabbi read In Blackwater Woods:

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

March again and my daughters and sons form a half-moon in front of me as we stand at a windswept rocky beach at the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine, one of the last vistas Jim photographed.

I find myself reading a Mary Oliver poem when my voice quivers again and a wave laps at my heel:  a turtle nudges with its bulldog head/the slippery stems of the lilies, making them tremble.”  She leads “the tender children,/the sweet children, dangling their pretty feet/into the darkness./And now will come—I can count on it—the murky splash,….”

Back again north to New Hampshire, to candle-lit Phillips Church, where another daughter is leading  an Evening Prayer.  Between two of her songs the Reverend reads Mary Oliver’s “Rumor of Moose in the Long Twilight of New Hampshire”:

the light lingered
we sat on the shore
and talked in whispers
watched the herons 

heard the owl
greeted the moon
stared at the far shore
stared at the far shore

empty in the moonlight.

I am told that in my often frenzied work setting I tend to speak in complex paragraphs with diagrammed subheadings, sprinkled with what Jim called “ten dollar lawyer words.”  (Public servants are not lavishly paid.)  Not exactly a style that lends itself to peaceful reflection among the community of beings in this dazzling world.

Mary Oliver leads me there.

Each one of these poems, like the Rev’s reminder to “breathe, breathe,” like the refrain   “Bow my head, let my heart slow,” has a soothing simplicity, a salve of repeated single-syllable words.

And I say to my . . . .

Stared at the far shore . . . .

And when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.


About Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She also is an adjunct professor at a law school on the banks of the Charles and loves that dirty water, as she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2020 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with Wordpress protocol and the numerous other wee buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.
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8 Responses to The Cottage of Darkness

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Mary Oliver’s words. I’m dealing with my own “box of darkness” and her poems, and your words here, are comforting.

    • Stephanie says:

      Allan, I am sorry; receiving that box is the hardest part in so many ways. Just in case you have not come across it yet, the single most helpful poem I read in the before and after of all this is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Before You Know What Kindness Really Is“:

      “Before you know what kindness really is
      you must lose things,
      feel the future dissolve in a moment
      like salt in a weakened broth.
      What you held in your hand,
      what you counted and carefully saved,
      all this must go so you know
      how desolate the landscape can be
      between the regions of kindness. . . .

      Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
      you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
      You must wake up with sorrow.
      You must speak to it till your voice
      catches the thread of all sorrows
      and you see the size of the cloth.

      Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
      only kindness that ties your shoes
      and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
      only kindness that raises its head
      from the crowd of the world to say
      it is I you have been looking for,
      and then goes with you everywhere
      like a shadow or a friend.”

  2. Francois Lang says:

    My dearest Steph,

    So…who is The Rev in your posting? Is he the now-infamous Robert Thompson, whom I met at Jim’s memorial? Regardless…funny story about RT: I recounted that visit to a former Fannie Mae colleague Brad (total Boston Brahmin (his father ran Mass General) and a really great guy) who I knew had attended Exeter, and told him about RT, and Brad said that he knew exactly who RT was cuz they had been in the same graduating class at Exeter. Whodathunkit?



  3. Stephanie says:

    Reblogged this on Love in the Spaces and commented:

    Oops; I’ve done it again. I am trying to sort it out with the WordPress genies, and have discovered my post reverted to its earliest draft again. As a person who is never satisfied before a 25th-ish draft, I am trying gain….

  4. adsgrandson2 says:

    Sweet Stephanie, you are most welcome. Now it is time for me to thank you. You make me sound wise, not something I ever count on, but always reach for. (I have released any hope of humility in my search of and longing for wisdom.) I am so happy that Mary Oliver is still speaking to you! She still speaks to me, as well.

    • Stephanie says:

      Rev! So very glad to hear from you–and to infer that a second grandson has arrived!? Your wisdom has helped many of navigate through the thickets, or at lest do our best to find the light.

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