It’s snowing as I write this. We’re not even halfway through October. It makes me anxious, knowing the world is changing, knowing there’s nothing I can do but rage and weep and read poetry.
Mary Oliver died on January 17th, 2019. Months after I put a hold on Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, I got an email from my local library with a book emoji in the subject line. The ebook you had on hold was borrowed for you—
Mary is best known for her poem “Wild Geese”: “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.” But I love her other work, too.
“When Death Comes”: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
“Sometimes”: “Death waits for me, I know it, around / one corner or another. / This doesn’t amuse me. / Neither does it frighten me.”
And, of course, “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
I wish I could ask her about October flurries. Did they scare her? Did she look up at the sky on clear summer nights and wonder how long the stars would hang there, suspended, frozen in time? Did she also feel like she was running out of time?
Right about the time my library sent me an email with the glorious, long-awaited book emoji, my adoptive mother Heather Havrilesky from “Ask Polly” fame landed in my inbox. It was a Friday. Heather visits me on Wednesdays. But then I saw the subject line—“I’m Paralyzed by Anxiety About Climate Change!”—and thought to myself, Ah, yes, of course.
It was Friday, September 20th. It was the first day of the Global Climate Strike.
“You can be happy as the sky falls,” Polly née Heather writes to Paralyzed.
Ah. Yes. Of course.
I rage. I weep. I send letters to my senators.
It’s not enough. It’s like stargazing on clear summer nights and wondering how the hell you’re going to keep the darkness from suffocating you. But it’s something.
“What will make you feel good?” Heather asks in “My Fear of Climate Change Is Eroding My Sanity!” “What will make you understand who you are, and feel proud of how you’re living? What will make you feel truly alive and grateful and strong, even now? What actions will honor this dying world the most?”
It sounds so much like Mary that I have to laugh. Years ago, when I was depressed and largely nonfunctioning, Mary came to me in a hardcover copy of Dog Songs. I felt something, really felt something, for the first time in months. I walked away tender and chewed up and a little more aware of my place beneath the stars, what it meant 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.”
Now, years later, Heather comes to me:
“You don’t have to do all of the right things. You just have to try. Trying will make your whole life feel a little bit less bleak. Trust me on that.
Because when you try, even a little bit, even in ways that won’t make a big difference, you align yourself with the Earth. You stand in solidarity with the trees. You pledge your allegiance to the birds in the skies, to the fish in the ocean. You are connected with those kids marching all over the world this week, desperately hoping that someone will listen to them. Go watch footage of them now, and feel in your cells what it means to care much more than you can stand. It’s like being set on fire. This is your blood, pledging allegiance to the ground. This is your despair, pledging allegiance to the clouds. You are being called to fight for this world with everything you’ve got.
Our feelings will lead us forward from here. We were lost before. We couldn’t feel enough. But now, we’re feeling our way toward hope, together. The sky is on our side.”
— Heather Havrilesky, “My Fear of Climate Change Is Eroding My Sanity!”
I wish I could ask Mary about October flurries. If it’s some kind of betrayal to see beauty in the burnished red of autumn leaves. Can I be happy? Should I be? How do I honor grief and—
I don’t know what to call it. Vitality, maybe. I feel alive in ways I haven’t before, sharpened by the knowledge that someday the sky will fall and everyone I’ve ever loved will be crushed by light.
I can’t ask Mary about the Global Climate Strike, but I can take her poems to heart. Like “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness”: “I don’t say / it’s easy, but / what else will do // if the love one claims to have for the world / be true? // So let us go on, cheerfully enough, / this and every crisping day, / though the sun be swinging east, / and the ponds be cold and black, / and the sweets of the year be doomed.”
Heather speaks with Mary’s authority. Her attention to detail, and her love for nature, even when it snows the second week in October. Her instructions for living a life echo the words of Mary: “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
“It’s our job to do our best with this broken, doomed world. So go outside and thank the trees for sticking around for so long. Feel the sunshine on your face. Taste the rain, and thank the rain. Savor this day as much as you can. Feel grateful that we are the ones who are called to rise up and face this challenge. And then, get ready to fight for this world with everything you’ve got.”
— Heather Havrilesky, “I’m Paralyzed by Anxiety About Climate Change!”
“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” Mary says in “Don’t Hesitate.” “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. … Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.”
I don’t say it’s easy, but what else will do if the love one claims to have for the world be true?