My mother and I shared a love of reading. When Mary Oliver was scheduled to speak at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, I purchased tickets, thinking how lovely it would be to take Mom to hear the poet. It would be a delightful evening we could enjoy together. But Mom couldn’t go out without her oxygen tank, and she was too embarrassed to carry it along because it made an intermittent clicking noise that would have been loud in the audience. So, Earllynn and I went, which was a gift also, to be with my friend of thirty-five years. Mary Oliver’s words carry me deeper inside myself and into nature. From her thirty-year perch in New England, she has written about the entire world: plants, rivers, snow, small brown birds, Whitman, geese, blossoms, attics, Percy her dog, crows, doors, hair, even Rumsfeld and Bush! Oliver read ten poems or so after an introduction by Pat Holt. I scooped Oliver’s spirit and soul into my belly.
Of course, she read “Wild Geese,” which she said she will be reading until she is 101. I love her past: she applied to Vassar but attended Ohio State; she explained that she had many As but also Ds in high school, because she could not stay inside the classrooms. Nature called her outside. She also was not good at mathematics. She led a simple life in order to be a poet, sent poems to magazines, and was surprised when she received a letter of acceptance for publication””but, of course, no money. The audience laughed. Her honor and integrity merged with my own passages of life experience and evoked my respect and oneness with her simplicity””that she knew so young what was true and important, who she was and is, and lived that so well. She did not speak of her doubts or struggles, but only of the certainty with which silence and nature give her riches and fullness. Two years ago she began going to church, which has changed her writing again. When asked why she has begun to write about politics when she did not previously, she said, “Because politics has never been so bad.” Her thoughts are wondrously ordinary, yet her words impart extraordinary wisdom.
The woman sitting next to me had a pungent odor that hung like a shadow across my seat. Midway through the lecture she fell asleep, until the audience clapped, and then her head jerked up and she began to scratch. I was a thin bookmark in my seat trying to stay away from her smell and think positive thoughts. Even that discomfort could not diminish the poet’s brilliance and the astonishing beauty of her words; it was a reflection of the yin and yang of nature””not good or bad””simply being.