Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens,
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”
Yesterday, it was announced publicly that the beloved poet Mary Oliver had passed away. I was immediately, deeply saddened by the news, for the world lost another woman with the wisdom that healed people. I have written about Mary Oliver’s work before in this space, for I have long been protective of her project and commitment to the transformative power of simple language. Her work is baptismal, clear, holy water that washes over the reader to help make her whole.
Oliver was the first poet whose work, I felt, changed me. When I read the first lines of her well-loved “Wild Geese,” I felt years of shame, buried into my body by nearly two decades of religious participation, lift from me. Those lines offered me relief, new and deeper breath, and then, I understood why the distilled language of poetry can grip the heart in a way that no other literary form can.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Yesterday, I spent hours engaged with a text on the “praxeological” approach to understanding affective spaces. It was purposefully verbose and purposefully over-complicated, words manipulated to sound more complicated than their meanings. Though I understood the argument, the jargon felt self-congratulatory. The author of the work knew the audience he was speaking to: academics in ivory towers who would, in fact, understand the linguistic performance. And yet, though I was proud of myself for understanding, the feminist in me simultaneously realized that this text that sat in front of me would never be read by more than an already insular group of people.
This text that had taken years of academic work would only contribute to a limited discourse and would not change or even reach a wider swath of people, who, too, are looking for frameworks to help them become more conscious, live with greater purpose, and affect their sense of the world. “Oh well,” I thought, remembering a professor’s statement on how different texts require different forms of engagement, and I began my analysis of the work. But then, later in the evening, I logged onto Instagram, and saw dozens of tributes to Oliver and her work.
As someone who studied literature and worked for a literary organization, I often silently grieve the losses of literary giants that many of my friends never read. But there before me was a sea of people who had been transformed, changed, inspired, and consoled by Oliver’s work. Her art, effort, and scholarship meant something, held a place so dear in the hearts of countless people. Her careful, clear words are now imprinted on the people who read them; they now carry her wisdom with them, as they shape the spheres of their worlds: a beautiful thing to remember and honor, a light in the darkness.
Oliver’s often-quoted question is a comfort today, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” For as much as it is a question about what you desire to create, it is a question about what you choose to love, what you choose to pay attention to, in this crazy and yet always magnificent world.