Ms. Oliver's Neighborhood
Were a vote held today, Fred Rogers—dead some 15 years—would top many Man of the Year ballots. Something about this year’s particular shape and struggles cries for Mr. Rogers’ wisdom, for his softness of heart.
My 5-year-old now owns a sufficient attention span to set Rogers’ striped chum Daniel Tiger aside and sit through a half-hour in the old neighborhood. And yet another delicate shadow stretches across my year; another kind soul offers similar salvation. In 2018, Mary Oliver is my Fred Rogers.
The poet, now 83 years wonderful, first crossed my radar in the recommendation of friend and Fathom editor Rachel Joy Welcher. Diving into Oliver’s vast body of work—so far, I’ve traveled cover-to-cover through five of her books—I find what others seek in Mr. Rogers.
Oliver’s world vibrates with electricity, the poet inhaling wonder and exhaling joy. Within her words rest affirmation, reservoirs of kindness, abiding curiosity and the sense that make-believe and everyday life intersect more often than we think.
When I grow agitated with the slowness of sanctification or wring my hands over the seeming gulf between all I want to do and the time left to me, I turn to “Don’t Worry”:
Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?
When the saltiness of this earth readies the tongue for righteousness, I find kinship with Oliver’s own “Thirst.” There, in part, she writes:
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart.
And when all the news becomes too much, with Oliver, I open “The Morning Paper”:
Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition
is the best for by evening you know that you at least
have lived through another day)
and let the disasters, the unbelievable
yet approved decisions,
Oliver walks, and writes, among the creekbeds and catbrier, “the bristlecone, and the willow,” birds with a thousand different calling cards, while I sit home with the few proper nouns I have for all this glory.
For her, clouds do little to darken the day or the soul. Instead, they are the “ambassadors” of God and spend their days “turning into lakes and rivers.” Later in “Clouds,” she writes:
This is, I suppose,
just one of the common miracles,
a transformation, not a vision,
not an answer, not a proof, but I put it
there, close against my heart, where the need is, and it serves
Her verse makes me believe I would be a better man if only I familiarized myself with the world Adam named, brimming with companionship, containing myriad points of connection. In Oliver’s world, rocks crying out and people offering praise need not be at odds.
I know what I know of Oliver: born in 1935 outside Cleveland; her first book published in 1963; a Pulitzer Prize in 1984, a National Book Award eight years later.
I know what I don’t know: who loved her best; how she took her coffee; what formed her holy imagination. I remain content to play the role of disciple, not scholar. Some magic needs no explanation.
Former Indiana Poet Laureate Adrian Matejka once grieved to me that our methods for teaching poetry have not kept pace with our soul’s need of it. We fail to show, he said, how poetry at its purest and deepest concerns itself with all kinds of people, with every issue we stare down. I find ample proof of his thesis in my favorite scribes and kinship with those who search poems like sacred scrolls.
Scott Cairns tethers me to the lives of the church fathers and mothers.
Hanif Abdurraqib reveals the bittersweetness in nostalgia.
Franz Wright cracks open my shell, exposing my brokenness—and my great capacity for grace.
Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros translates the lives of distant neighbors into the language of my own.
Donald Hall prepares me to die.
Poets tune their ears to the hidden music of the world. Mary Oliver hears in symphonies. All our action verbs find their yes and amen in them, as they mine rhymes and line breaks, metonymy and simile, for the diamonds of grace necessary to keep going.
In Mary Oliver, I find a poet whose thoughts are higher than my own. Yet her meditations cast a vision of what I want to be. Oliver once wrote what might be my true life verse:
Lord, there are so many fires, so many words, in my heart.
It’s going to take something I can’t even imagine, to put them all out.
Fresh words sound a familiar call and, with each stanza, I respond in kind. Yes, Ms. Oliver, I will be your neighbor.