“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long. The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God. And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.” – Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver was born on September 10th, 1935. She was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She died in January this year at the age of 83.
Oliver left us with her poetic treasures. A gift that so many of us adore and cherish. I humbly offer this article as a tribute to her poems, wisdom and timeless messages that continue to inspire and transform our journey as a human collective.
Oliver contemplated and wrote about the greatest love of her life––-nature. The natural world was her church and spiritual refuge. She possessed a remarkable, intuitive perception with which she used to brilliantly express nature’s wonders and their unseen healing powers. Her message: nature is medicine.
I enjoy sharing her poems with my kids. They are simple, elegant and lovable and because of that she is accessible to everyone regardless of age, culture or education.
Oliver constantly invites us outside to experience natural medicine. It is here where we can rest, listen and nourish parts of our inner spirit that have become fragmented.
“Resting in nature” was Oliver’s spiritual practice. It is what made her a mystic in every sense of the word—living in a “divine communion” with the natural world and it’s wonders. She writes, “I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs. The world I live in and believe in is wider than that.” She was eager to express this wider world and welcomed us into it.
In her poem entitled "To Begin With, The Sweet Grass" she writes, “The witchery of living is my whole conversation with you, my darlings. All I can tell you is what I know. Look, and look again. This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes. It’s more than bones. It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse. Its more than the beating of the single heart. It’s praising. It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving. You have a life. Just imagine that! You have the day, and maybe another, and maybe still another.”
She teaches us that every moment we are “present” is another chance for praising. These messages pervade her writings. Whether it is to become present to the ocean, roses, grasses, stones, or swans she wants us to join her in becoming more attentive and absorbed. She believed that we receive nature’s gifts by giving it our full attention.
In her poem “Evidence" she writes, “And, where are you, with your ears bagged down as if with packets of sand? Listen! We all have much more listening to do. Tear the sand away. And listen. The river is singing.”
Have you ever had the feeling, after getting quiet and still, that there is more to life than what meets the eye? This was Oliver’s invitation and challenge to each of us––to find the deeper meaning in all things. That just because you don’t see something on the surface, doesn’t mean there’s not something more there. There is so much we can't see with our eyes, or hear with our ears, yet it is still there. This energy, sometimes called prana shakti in yoga, is alive, potent and inside everything on this planet.
We all know intuitively that there is more to life than what meets the eye. Simply pausing, feeling it and contemplating it ignites our 6th sense and transforms our day to day experiences. Oliver tapped into this. She was in touch with the prana shakti and gorgeously expressed her experiences in her poetry.
It’s like in the movie Star Wars when the Jedi's have to use the "force." What they are really doing is intuiting the deeper meaning of what’s out there. With contemplation they are able to harness their powers that lay dormant.
Oliver’s contemplations on the transformative effects of beauty inspires me. “Beauty without purpose is beauty without virtue. But all beautiful things have this function—to excite the viewers toward sublime thought. Glory to the world, that good teacher.” The world is teaching us that beauty can be found anywhere. It doesn’t always have to be the grand feathered peacock, it can also be the ordinary, simple things.
For instance, in the poem “Mindful” she writes, “Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen…Nor am I talking about the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant—but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab…” We often desire and are searching for the metaphorical fireworks to go off in our life. If this is the case, we may be waiting for some time. Most of us are severely dehydrated and are desperate for some soul refreshment. It is helpful to remember that less is more.
The soul’s refreshment is the simplicity of life––the true beauty that surrounds us in every moment. Ask yourself, what can I feel in my heart when I am looking into the world just witnessing? Am I “here” for it? Or, as Oliver said, “...am I just swimming in my thoughts?”
Oliver asks the question, “If you have not been enchanted by this adventure —your life—what would do for you?” I wonder how many times she asked herself that question when she was growing up. Her childhood was “un-enchanting.” She revealed in personal interviews that her family was very dysfunctional and that her father sexually abused her. Instead of withering on the vine, the tenacity of her inner spirit drove her outside into nature where she took long walks.
Those long walks became her enchantment—the remedy for her broken heart. She wrote about her parents only one time ending with, “I give them-one, two, three, four—the kisses of courtesy, of sweet thanks, of anger, of good luck in the deep earth. May they sleep well. May they soften. But I will not give them the kiss of complicity. I will not give them the responsibility for my life.” Self pity would not be her companion. Oliver was determined to take responsibility for her future and follow her bliss. I am grateful she did, because her poetry now greatly influences me and countless others.
Her words refresh my tired eyes and weary states of being. She is an inspiring role model and a true teacher. Can we all be a little bit more like Mary Oliver? When life is getting us down, can we pause to hear the song of the birds? See the dazzling colors of the flowers? Smell the rain as it touches the earth? Can we trust in nature, even in the silence and stillness? And allow it to console and nourish the dissatisfied places in our hearts?
True nourishment is “somatic.” It is distinct from the brain. We cannot “think” our way towards nourishment, it comes from experiencing a felt-sense of well-being. The elixir is not always found in words, but found in the language of the heart through feelings, sensations, pulsations and vibrations. The universe is constantly trying to communicate with us in this language. Remember to stop and feel it from time to time. If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, give in to it. In a world where hate and chaos is everywhere love is always the way. And there is always more to learn than what is on the surface. Oliver taught me that.
A Yoga Unplugged collaboration - written by Jennifer Reuter, edited by Sarah Burchard