Waking Mary Oliver

On the day Mary Oliver died, I wept as if I had lost my sister.  I texted a friend:  I feel stripped of a lifeline.  For decades Mary Oliver’s work resonated even as I was finding my own voice as a writer.  She lived in the world in a way I allowed myself to only visit for too many years. Until my own brush with death invited a deeper yes.

In 2006, I was co-leading a multi-day leadership course to 24 top financial industry executives, male. I chose “The Journey” to open the discussion of how in times of transition we are moved to re-find ourselves, and lead from a place that feels true.  I waded out into the center of the U, realizing the risk in such a feminine start. I read as if their lives depended on hearing the truth of it.  And for a good while, silence filled the room, and, unexpectedly, communal tears. The personal development plans that came from that inspiration were powerful, honest, real.

Three months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I re-read the poem for myself.  And I eventually listened to Mary Oliver reading Mary Oliver to and from all thirty radiation treatments.  She offered a presence of hope then, and still.

A couple days after she died, an impromptu conversation happened about getting together with others who mourned her loss, and who might share aloud their favorites of her work.  Seventeen people showed up in a small chapel, to share and receive.  We read her words on how a poem is not completed until it is “performed.”  Several in attendance stood and read selected poems, spoke of their meaning.  Silence interwove the words. We ended with Mary’s voice reading a couple poems.  The exchange was sacred and powerful; we experienced Mary’s thesis that poetry is prayer.

We did not expect that half the group did not know of Mary Oliver until her death; their curiosity moved them to be present.  They spoke to the power in hearing the poems and stories, how they were inspired to find more of her work, and whether we could meet again to continue creating such sacred space.  One participant wrote after the “wake”:  “I found this from Mary Oliver—’Poetry is a life-cherishing force.  For poems are not words after all, but fires for the cold, hopes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.’ I hadn’t realized how much I had needed our evening together until it happened.”

Rest assured that the gift of your work lives, Mary Oliver.  Thank you for writing your life.

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