Instructions for Life: Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver was born on 10 September 1935 in Maple Hills Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She would retreat from a difficult home to the nearby woods, where she would build huts of sticks and grass and write poems about the quiet occurrences of nature and what it can teach us about life’s fragility, resilience and the quest for meaning. Anyone who has read Oliver’s poems must have been stopped in their tracks every now and then, as I have, by Oliver’s profound wisdom on how to live a life that’s filled with astonishment, beauty, and creativity. Here is a small selection of her remarkable writings in poetry and prose.

Instructions for Living a Life
Excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, Sometimes.

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Here is the first poem in the collection Thirst, titled, “The Messenger.”

The Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to
be astonished.

The next piece is a poem tenitled, “What Can I say”, from Oliver’s book, Swan: Prose and Poems.

What Can I Say?

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

Lastly, some timeless advice on the importance of making time for living the creative life, taken from Oliver’s enchanting, Upstream: Selected Essays.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”

~ Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016)

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