Mary Oliver and Opening Doors

Published on 2019-01-18

I can't stop thinking about time. 

I laughed at myself in the class I teach, yesterday -- a course on fantastical short fiction, in its second week, focused on character. We read Max Gladstone's "A Kiss With Teeth," discuss the ways in which that story is focused through the lens of character, the techniques by which Gladstone ("Max" now to 1/3 of my class, good kids taking the course again after having met him last year, and who've decided they're on a first-name basis with him now, to my delight) makes character aspects manifest through prose style, structure, pace. 

One of the students, in her early 20s, brought up immortality (the main character is a vampire), and the exhaustion "only an immortal can feel" -- only to be countered by another student, in his late forties, who said "but there's no way to truly know" what an immortal feels. His speech felt deeply informed, to me, by how exhausted we mortals can be, and how that exhaustion is, perhaps, different in one's early twenties than one's late forties. 

I started to say so, and laughed, helplessly, at myself, because I am recently turned 34, and kept myself from pouring what deep wisdom I have gathered to myself on the subject of ~time~ and our experience of it -- by which I mean of course my experience of it: having my childhood nostalgia sold to me at a reasonable markup; recalling my earlier childhood in every song my mother sings to my nephew; feeling my body lose strength and flexibility, succumb to strange ailments; worrying about my joints, my vision; wondering if I'll ever be able to afford a house or retirement; desperately resisting thinking about time wasted, time running out, time misspent, time stolen, and trying to be present, to be grateful, to be joyful, and to hope. 

Mary Oliver died today. 

My tenses jumble. I want to say, "Mary Oliver is a poet," the way I would speak of her in an essay -- the immortality we bestow on those who've written, always speaking of them active, present. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes of two star-crossed lovers--that sort of thing. I want to say, "Mary Oliver is an American poet whose work won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award," though her Wikipedia page says was, not is. I want to say, "Mary Oliver's work makes me feel like all the best and most beautiful parts of the world love me," and have it be true now, and true in the future, and let its past-ness come after I'm no longer here to feel any kind of way about her work. 

Mary Oliver's work made -- makes -- me feel the way I do when I talk to Terri Windling: present, awash with gratitude, warm in my heart, alive and aglow, certain of my place in the world and delighted with it, worthy of it. 

Perhaps her most famous, quoted, anthologised poem is "The Wild Geese," which first appeared in her Pulitzer-winning collection Dream Work, in 1986, and with good reason: it is loving, and kind, and forgiving, and fiercely affirming. I cannot begin to quote it without saying the whole thing, so here it is:

You do not have to be good.
 You do not have to walk on your knees
 for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
 You only have to let the soft animal of your body
      love what it loves.                        
 Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
 Meanwhile the world goes on.
 Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
 are moving across the landscapes,
 over the prairies and the deep trees,
 the mountains and the rivers.
 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
 are heading home again.
 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
 the world offers itself to your imagination,
 calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
 over and over announcing your place
 in the family of things. 

***

My husband, Stu, loves music documentaries. Presently he's watching his way through Six by Sondheim, a survey of Stephen Sondheim's career with a particular focus on six of his songs with remarkable histories. One of them is "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along, a musical which moves backwards through the life of a wealthy, successful Hollywood composer to his humble, hopeful beginnings as a young man among friends trying to make it in New York. 

I haven't seen or listened to the musical, in spite of my beloved friend Claire posting me DVDs of it and Sunday in the Park with George which sat unwatched for so long before I sent them back that I'm still ashamed. There was never enough time, somehow, to sit and watch something my friend wanted me to see -- such that now, probably eight years later, I finally heard "Opening Doors" because Stu dragged me bodily before the computer to show me a video adaptation of it for this documentary. 

So on the day that Mary Oliver died I hovered over his shoulder and watched three bright-eyed young artists sing brilliantly, fiercely, bitterly, furiously, jubilantly about their art. 

We're opening doors, singing, "Here we are!"
 We're filling up days on our dime
 That faraway shore's looking not too far
 We're following every star
 There's not enough time! 

I cried. On and off throughout it, whenever that rigorous vigour of the three of them, three friends working together on their art, reaches a musical boiling point, that vastness between following every star and there's not enough time

Burr asking Hamilton why do you write like you're running out of time

Mary Oliver saying, in "The Summer Day," 

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

***

The man who taught me the word "tithenai" died on New Year's Eve. Marc Hewson was 48 years old, and I'd known him -- with the friendly distance that comes from having been taught by someone, then being their TA, then growing into their colleague -- for fifteen years. He was kind and funny and sweet, a genuinely amazing teacher, and I can't believe he's gone. We would run into each other in various university departments, always sincerely happy to see each other, and insist that we'd have lunch together. We never did. 

Today my friends Jenn and Nadine and I had lunch together, and spoke about him, and cried together, marveling at the lives he touched, how far the ripples of his work have reached, will reach. The student who was failing out of first year, unprepared for university life, until he took a course with Marc Hewson, and graduated with a medical degree and a PhD. The notion that every single time I explain to a student what a thesis statement is, I'm using his words, and passing on "tithenai" -- the Greek word from which "thesis" is derived, meaning "to take a stand" -- like a coin. That every time I take a stand, I think of him a little. His wild, precious life, its seeds scattered and sown into so many hundreds of people, year on year -- and his daughter, eight years old, carrying only that much of him with her into her own. 

***

I can't stop thinking about time, and generations, and how enormous our lives are and how tiny. I can't stop wondering if this is endemic to being in one's thirties, with enough behind us and enough before us that we start -- perhaps for the first time -- really feeling urgency replace impatience.

Maybe it's just me, speaking despite my embarrassed suspicion that anyone the slightest bit older than me will think, how cute. I too remember my first real intimations of mortality. 

But I'd like to believe that one can only think that sort of thought with compassion. 

***

And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life? 

--Mary Oliver, "The Swan"