I first read Mary Oliver at nineteen years old. Until that point my knowledge and exposure to poetry consisted of the terribly unimaginive units we were taught in high school English class. There was no joy in these classes, no sense of discovery. However my second year of college a mentor had given me a copy of Oliver’s New and Selected Poems and insisted we meet over coffee to discuss it. Being the ever reliable people pleaser that I am read the volume from front to back and in the pages of that volume I discovered something of myself.
I discovered that there was beauty in stillness. I learned that you didn’t have to say it all to communicate a deep truth. And probably most importantly I discovered that a well turned phrase can crack open possibility in the human heart. This last one has been a guiding concept in my preaching, speaking and leading for years.
And then there was the journey that Oliver set me on that has spanned nearly two decades of my life.
The discovery that I loved poetry led me to Yeats and Dickenson, Lucille Clifton and Naomi Shihab Nye, Clint Smith III and Wendell Berry, David Whyte and Rupi Kaur. On and on I fell in love with the simple way that poetry could speak to the delicate nuances and deep truths about life. I looked to poetry, like scripture to help me make meaning, to gently heal me and to press me forward with courage. I’ve attended poetry retreats with some of my favorite poets, that have given me the space to reflect on my vocation. In fact it was on a retreat in Monterey with the poet David Whyte that I began to imagine the possibility of this ministry I’m building now.
Oliver’s work has spoken to me at different points in my life–when I was leaving a church call that was no longer a good fit The Journey was a life line. As I have aged into middle adulthood it is the simple lines from Don’t Worry for the volume Felicity “Things take the time they take. Don’t/ worry./How many roads did St Augustine follow/before he became St Augustine?” that have been a touchstone.
For all of this and so much more I am grateful for the life and work of Mary Oliver. May her words always be a refuge, a nudge and a place of self discovery.