Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading. Mary Oliver.

The other day, a friend wrote about the mother of her son's classmate, who was scheduled for some upcoming surgery. It brought to mind her own two battles with cancer, now in remission. She'd written of her experiences before, the first when she was 28, the second several years later, when her sons were 3 and 1. I had read her blog before we even met, and I was a little in awe of her. It was clear that L. is the kind of woman who makes everything around her beautiful, who seems to take pause and drink in all the moments that we should all stop and treasure. It felt like those months of illness and recovery, especially when her children were so small, were what made L. so determined to live with such awareness.

The anger and fear that she wrote about, of her own mortality and the body and life that would never be the same, of missing precious months of her sons' toddlerhoods, reminded me of the journalist Ruth Picardie. She died of breast cancer at the age of 33, leaving behind a husband and twin babies. For them her absence was not merely for the months of treatment, pain and anguish and hope, but for the rest of their lives. I knew of Ruth from her sister, the writer Justine Picardie, and from the late Elspeth Thompson, who gave us this poem. This was read at Ruth's memorial service:

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

- Mary Oliver, American Primitive.

I've always loved Mary Oliver for her clear way of writing about love and loss, of the fleeting moments of sadness interleaved with splashes of happiness that make up life. This poem is pinned to the wall above my desk at work, along with several others. It never fails to break my heart and then put it back together.

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