Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

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Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver, the poet who wrote those famous lines, has died. Like me, thousands upon thousands of people around the world are mourning her. Like many others, I found my way to poetry through her poems. Before that, I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry; what contemporary poems I did read often seemed difficult and obscure.

I remember my first encounter with her art. It was during a break at a communications workshop somewhere in Maine, sometime in the ‘90s. We were invited to browse a selection of books laid out on a table. There was a dark green book with a simple cover on which the title was spelled out in red: New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. Below it, the words, ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry’ and below that, a yellow circle showing a woodcut of an open book encircled by the words, ‘National Book Award Winner.’ It was probably the mention of the prizes that spurred my success-seeking magpie eye to pick up the book, which fell open at the poem “Wild Geese” and these now-famous lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

As I read the poem, I felt inexplicably moved. You do not have to be good. All the self-imposed strictures, the lashing ‘shoulds’, the perpetual-motion machine of self-improvement – all this began to crumble as Mary Oliver’s words pierced the shell of my image. The poem asked me to consider a radical outlook: You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and later, over and over announcing your place in the family of things. I was just as worthy of a place on this earth as my natural cousins — the sun, the rain, the rivers and trees, and the wild geese. I belonged for no other reason than I existed.

After that first encounter, I devoured Mary Oliver’s poems. Few other poets have spoken to me as clearly, as eloquently, as transcendently about the bond between nature and the human heart. Her book-length poem, The Leaf and The Cloud, (to me, her masterpiece) convinced me that paying attention to the natural world, and minding our place in its constant transformation through cycles of birth and death, was a path of the highest calling.

Over the years, I have discovered and appreciated the art of many fine poets, but it is to Mary Oliver’s poems that I return again and again for deep soul nourishment and a fresh look around. Mary Oliver, evening star, with hearts full of sorrow and gratitude, we bid you sweet goodbye as you melt into the great mystery.

Death, whoever and whatever you are, tallest king of
tall kings, grant me these wishes: Unstring my bones;
let me be not one thing but all things, and wondrously
scattered; shake me free from my name. Let the wind and
the wildflowers, and the catbird never know it. Let
time loosen me up like the bead of a flower from its wrappings
of leaves. Let me begin the changes….

~ from “Gravel” in The Leaf and The Cloud



  1. Sherry

    January 20, 2019

    Mary Lou, what a beautiful tribute to a poet whose work has had a profound impact on millions of us. You put my feelings the last few days into words so much better than I could. Her words live on — by my bedside — and in my heart.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      January 21, 2019

      Thanks Sherry – What a lovely way to finish a day- reaching for a Mary Oliver poem. Sweet and deep dreams. xo

  2. Janice

    January 20, 2019

    How eloquently you have honoured this astonishingly evocative poet, so dear to the hearts of so many. I love to hear of your experiences of her and I know, having heard you, that you have taken the whole of Leaf and Cloud to heart – I can think of no greater tribute. We will keep her very much alive, each in our own worlds. xoxox

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      January 21, 2019

      Dear Jan – thank you – but I have to be honest – learning Leaf and Cloud by heart is still ongoing! (Five of the chapters learned…and need refreshing). I appreciated so much your tribute to Leafe and Cloud on your Heart Poems blog. xo

  3. Laurie

    January 20, 2019

    Beautifully put, Mary Lou. Thank you for this.

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