Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
This stanza from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes” has made its way into every essay I have written about my philosophy of ministry, from divinity school applications to capstone papers for chaplaincy training. It has become a life motto, a beacon for the path of spiritual practice. Oliver herself calls paying attention “our endless and proper work.” The announcement of her death on January 17 certainly called me to attention.
Her poems are the dewdrop evidence of her own saturated attention to the world around her. She is most known for her observation and contemplation within the natural world. She walked around with a notebook, ever ready to make note of something that caught her eye. The line she is most known for, Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?, spins from her consideration of a grasshopper in “The Summer Day”—this grasshopper, she says. The one that is in front of her. Each life on this earth unique, and with its own purpose to fulfill. The universal made known in the particular.
Oliver has some suggestions, or inclinations, about this animating question of how we are to live. In “Wild Geese,” which Krista Tippett describes in an OnBeing interview as “a poem that has saved lives,” we hear these words of solace: 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. Then there is this reverent conclusion from “In Blackwater Woods:”
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.
I walk around the hospital with a notebook, ready to scribble the signs of life made known through patient and family stories. Often I have one of these poems tucked inside the cover, sometimes to share with a patient, sometimes to aid my own reflection. When I collaborate with our palliative care team, I am especially aware of a Mary Oliver philosophy at work, and grateful for it. Sitting down to a goals of care conversation—Tell me, what is it you plan to do… Accompanying a bewildered family during a compassionate extubation—you must be able to do three things…
One of Oliver’s poems that I only learned about this week is a meditation on her own death—what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?—shared with her characteristic attention and amazement. The practice of palliative care leads us into similar territory. I will strive to pay attention; be astonished; and tell about it.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.