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Pace: What Mary Oliver’s poetry taught me

On Jan. 17 I lost a dear friend. Mary Oliver wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I didn’t even get the chance to hear her in person. But she’s accompanied me in life on many personal and professional endeavors in the previous two decades. Her poetry has inspired and changed me, but it has also saved me (mostly from myself) on a number of occasions. 


On the day she died, I found myself raiding my bookshelves and re-reading much of Mary Oliver’s work after learning of her death from lymphoma at the age of 83. The treat that I didn’t expect to see was my Facebook feed full of friends from different religious traditions and political persuasions posting her poetry and articles about her work and life. She transcended many of the differences that tend to divide us. She taught us what it means to slow down, pay attention to life, and love the world. In the final project of my doctoral work at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, I talked about how I see it as my job as a college chaplain to open up greater possibility for students to understand that their work in life is to not only be engaged with the world but in loving the world. My world revolves around those students in many ways, and I feel the weight of the responsibility from my faith and as a human being to help them lift their heads, slow down and pay attention, which will give them a greater chance at loving the world.

In her poetry she taught us that we didn’t have to be good or deprive ourselves or follow strict laws. We don’t have to let the differences divide us or our commonalities melt us into the generic. Instead, she asked us to go outside and look around. In the first line of her poem “Messenger” she writes, “My work is loving the world.” This is the first of many poems in her 2006 book Thirst that were written and shared shortly after her beloved and long-time partner Molly Malone Cook died. She grapples with grief and is vulnerable with herself and with us, the reader. And out of that, she invites us to let our work be about loving the world, which, as she writes, “is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” 

Not too long ago I was with my six-year-old at Wofford College, where I’m an alumnus, for a basketball game. We had a really good weekend, one of many to come I can only hope. I felt like I had been paying attention to him in a way that would even make Mary Oliver proud. After the game we were back at the hotel room way past his bedtime when he said something to me that I often say to him. I had no doubt done something to provoke these words. He said, “Dad, you’re a mess.” It’s a line I’ve been saying to him since the beginning of his young life. I’m almost certain someone used to say the same thing to me when I was his age. I’ve never meant anything disparaging by it. I often say it with a mix of humor and seriousness, and he’s used to it by now. I always follow it up with, “But you’re my mess.” 

It’s true, though, isn’t it? We’re all a bit of a mess, and we all experience the messiness of life at some age and stage. Mary Oliver experienced messiness from early on in her own life in the form of sexual abuse, and it shaped her life forever in both bad and good ways. It meant that she spent a lot of time outdoors avoiding the inside of her home, which is how she fell in love with nature. It was how she first learned to pay attention to the God’s good creation surrounding her, and in her poetry she beckons us to this same calling. She says that “attention is the beginning of devotion” and then asks us to use that as we strive to love the world and all its messiness and goodness.

After Sam told me that I was a mess in that Marriott hotel room a few weekends ago, with a twinkle in his own eye he then looked at me directly and said, “but, Dad, I love your mess.” He doesn’t even know who Mary Oliver is and, yet, somehow, he does. 

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.