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:
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
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.