Celebrating Our Teachers: In Memory of Mary Oliver

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The text from my sister read “Mary Oliver has died :(“.

I paused for a long moment before replying. I could feel my sense of the world reshaping itself around this unwieldy knowledge, like trying to carry an awkward package. Mary Oliver, a respected poet who changed my life as well as the lives of countless readers, is no longer mindfully walking the earth in the “soft animal” of her body, a phrase from one of her well-loved poems, ‘Wild Geese’ (below).
What does this change— the shifting of a tangible, familiar form in our lives, and the dissolving of a particular presence — mean for all of us?

I first heard Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Wild Geese’ read aloud in a writing exercise in the late 90’s on a retreat in Mexico. I was coming out of a depression and writing poetry was my lifeline. Oliver’s open acceptance of both suffering and beauty, her visceral connection with the natural world, and her compassion for the suffering of her readers, moved and inspired me. Her wonder and awe felt grounded, born of deep experience and transcendence of suffering. She inspired me to be present with my own pain and feel it, as well as learning to embrace my joy in the natural beauty of the world around me. As I continued to explore her words, her poems helped me feel free to be myself in all my vulnerability, and excited to be alive.

Now as I read some of the obituaries, old interviews, and remembrances of Oliver online, and revisit my favorite poems by her, I am struck by the simple directness of her writing which often reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Mary Oliver wrote in the poem ‘Sometimes’ from ‘Red Bird: Poems’ 2008

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

I see a profound, beautiful parallel in her words with Thay’s encouragement to “look deeply” and his memorable phrase “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment”.

Our teachers arrive in different forms throughout our lives, and act as guides who open our vision to unexpected landscapes. Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh are two of mine. Mary Oliver’s poems cherish life in the knowledge of approaching mortality. She spent many days walking and sleeping in the woods, watching the natural cycles of life unfold, and then writing her emotional response as an intimate invitation to her readers.

In this brief excerpt from an Interview with Mary Oliver by Krista Tippett on the NPR radio show ‘On Being’ Oct 15, 2015, she talks about spirituality and death.

MS. OLIVER: “We all wonder, “Who is God? What’s going to happen when we die?” All that stuff. And I don’t think it’s — maybe — it’s never nothing. I’m very fond of Lucretius.”

MS. TIPPETT: “Say some more.”

MS. OLIVER: “And Lucretius says just everything’s a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else. Now that’s a continuance. It’s not the one we think of when we’re talking about the golden streets and the angels with how many wings and whatever, the hierarchy of angels. Even angels have a hierarchy. But it’s something quite wonderful.

The world is pretty much — everything is mortal. It dies. But its parts don’t die. Its parts become something else. And we know that when we bury a dog in the garden. And with a rose bush on top of it. We know that there is replenishment. And that’s pretty amazing.”

In a talk on death and continuation in Hong Kong in 2007, Thay says in the transcript of Awakening from the Dream: What Happens When we Die?

“Death is a very necessary condition of birth. With no death, there is no birth. They inter-are and happen in every moment to the experienced meditator. For instance a cloud may have died many times, into rain, streams, water. The cloud may want to wave to itself on earth! Rain is a continuation of the cloud. With a meditation practitioner nothing can hide itself. When I drink tea, it’s very pleasant to be aware I am drinking cloud.

When you are a parent, you die and are reborn as your children. “You are my continuation, I love you.” The Buddha told us how to ensure a beautiful continuation – a compassionate thought, a beautiful thought. Forgiveness is our continuation. If anger, separation and hate arise, then we will not ensure a beautiful continuation. When we pronounce a word that is compassionate, good and beautiful that is our continuation.

When a cloud is polluted, the rain is polluted. So purifying thoughts, word and action creates a beautiful continuation. We can see the effects of our speech in our children. My disciples are my continuation ­– both monastic and lay. I want to transmit loving speech, action and thought. This is called karma in Buddhism.

This body of mine will disintegrate but my karma will continue – karma means action. My karma is already in the world. My continuation is everywhere in the world. When you look at one of my disciples walking with compassion, I know he is my continuation. I don’t want to transmit my negative emotions, I want to transform them before I transmit them. The dissolution of this body is not my end. Surely I will continue after the dissolution of this body. So don’t worry about my death, I am not going to die.”

As I read their words, I can feel the continuation of Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh in me, and how they both have become part of my life. This Thursday night, at Crossings, we’ll have our regular siting and walking meditation. Afterward, we’ll share about and celebrate the Great Teachers of our lives, exploring how our teachers have changed us and brought us into better alignment with our true selves. You are warmly invited to join us!

Many Blessings,
Eliza King

Wild Geese

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver

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