Reflecting in Isolation with Mary Oliver, by Samantha Chase
I was so full of energy
I was always running around, looking
at this and that
If I stopped
the pain was unbearable.
– Mary Oliver, from “The Moths”
Like many people, I’m currently spending almost all of my time at home. Whether spending it productively or at times filling the space with forgotten music and books, or doing nothing at all, a feeling of isolation has seemed to weave its way into our lives. Now more than ever, it is difficult to escape this new collective feeling while we all continue to shelter in place. We try to fill the space where it lives with to-do lists and the daily minutiae we are used to, but it can feel heavy and exhausting. Instead of attempting to quiet and mask the feeling, I recommend looking to Mary Oliver’s work to learn to embrace it.
A native Ohioan, Oliver’s poetry describes honest, poignant, all-consuming reflection in moments deemed empty or trivial by most. Oliver explored when nature, beautifully, painfully, by chance, forced our observance of its role in our lives, and by doing so, asked us to be aware of the choices we overlook.
If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
– from “The Moths”
When we notice them, the moments we once found to be unproductive or wasteful, can inspire how we live, and more importantly now, give us the gifts of reflection and reward in isolation. Her work can ground thinking, warrant pause, and give meaning to meaningless mornings, meals, seasons, time.
In “Hummingbirds” she writes,
I had meant no harm
I had simply
climbed the tree
for something to do.
And within a moment she is taken by discovery, as if she was able to tag along on hummingbirds’ journey to new places and time,
I went to China
I went to Prague;
I died and was born in the Spring
I found you, and loved you again.
Oliver’s words are less simple than they are accessible. In “Every Morning” and “Forty Years,” to name a few, she writes plainly of her examination of life, all of its many difficult and beautiful moments available to us over morning coffee and in time alone. Rachel Syme, writing in The New Yorker, remembers Oliver after her death in January 2019, observing, “her’s were not poems about isolation, though, but about pushing beyond your own sense of emotional quarantine, even when you feel fear.” A year later, this statement holds more weight and takes on new meaning. Oliver’s work pushes us to be present; reminding us that isolation does not mean loneliness, and that wonder, however small, can be in every moment.
I want to say all my life
I was a bride to amazement.
– from “When Death Comes”
In this unprecedented time of physical isolation and, look to Oliver to inspire amazement.
The Poetry Foundation website is a great source for poems, readings, poetry news and the entire 100-year archive of POETRY magazine. Read more about Mary Oliver and access some of her work here.