The first time I saw a Mary Oliver quote I was running down King Street in Charleston, South Carolina, asking the outdoors to bear with me while I pounded out the answer to a crossroads in my life on the pavement.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
This seemingly innocent sentence was framed outside of the entrance to a historical graveyard in the middle of downtown Charleston. I think Mary would have really loved the irony in that.
I don’t like graveyards, but as I’ve learned now throughout years of reading her poems, a little bit of Mary goes a long way. I walked into the graveyard that day, and it became a place I returned to again and again throughout my time in Charleston, a place where crossroads didn’t seem so daunting and I was reminded of the gift of my “one wild and precious life.”
When I heard the news of her passing this morning, I reflected on what Mary and her work had done for me in my life, without ever knowing my name, without ever knowing I existed at all.
Maybe that’s what happens when you lean into your passions and you honor the gifts you’ve been given. The light emitted from your pursuit shines so brightly that it lights the paths of others, even though your feet may never touch the same ground.
That’s what Mary was good at. She made you go places—in your heart, in your mind, in your life, in your relationships. New places, old places. Scary places, familiar places. But you didn’t go alone.
The best part about Mary was that you knew wherever you were going, wherever her thoughts were leading you, she had been there before. You walked on the worn path her words left behind, and she always guided you to the destination.
She was a page to turn to, a word to hang on, an emotion to carry. My mom spent every morning with her, starting each day with just the sun and Mary’s Devotions. My friend cried at her desk today when she heard the news of Mary’s passing, reading her poem “When Death Comes” again and again and aching in the poignancy.
The legacy she leaves behind is as soft and strong as the emotions her poems evoked. She had a subtle way of bending your ear, but oh how you listened.
If you weren’t a reader of Mary’s while she was alive, we need more people in the world with her words in their heads, so I hope I’ve laid the seed. And if you were an avid reader of Mary’s and you’re looking for a way to honor her, I suggest starting with the verb she embodied so well:
Mary, we are going to miss you terribly, but thanks to your books, you’ll never be too far away.