Though many tributes have been written, I’ve yet to find one that says what I would wish to say. Therefore, I humbly offer this one.
When I love an artist, I like to take everything in. In fact, I still much prefer buying music on vinyl or cd, not just because of the better audio quality, but also for what I enjoy as much as the music – lyrics and liner notes. I read every word.
Similarly, I like to take the time to read the first few pages in a book: the copyright page, the table of contents, and most of all – the dedication page. I’ve always been struck by and keenly interested to know to whom my favorite singers and writers dedicate their projects.
Today, as I am continuing to reflect and mourn over the passing of beloved Mary Oliver, I’m realizing and processing the depth and meaning I experienced as one of her readers. From cherished poems long and stretching to her exercises in brevity, I’ve been a fan. And through teaching, leading, coaching, and work as a therapist, I’ve recruited – I mean passed on – love and appreciation for her work.
Like so many, I connected with and related to Mary’s love for nature – her sensing and seeing the depths of beauty, her being entranced in the mysteries of the natural world, and her sharp insights and spiritual wisdom she gathered from her many walks in the woods and along the shore.
I join in the chorus of those challenged and inspired by her lines in “The Summer Day,” “Peonies,” “The Journey,” “Wild Geese,” and more of the usual favorites.
The first poem (I think) I read of Mary’s was “The Journey.” I remember connecting with the feeling and heart of that poem, but it wouldn’t be until later that I made the connection between this poem and its creator.
The first time I felt struck by Mary, I was in graduate school. A woman I deeply cared for shared that she was reading a book of poetry called Blue Iris. She shared “Peonies” with me. Immediately, I was hooked. Over the next year, I read more of Mary’s work and purchased Blue Iris and New and Selected Poems (Volume 1). I read her poems in groups I led and used them for instilling hope in others – and most deeply – in myself.
As much as I’ve shared my love for Mary’s work and spirit, there’s something else I’ve strongly felt toward her but never put into words until now:
Deep abiding gratitude.
Of course, I am thankful for the beauty, simplicity, and meaning I received from Mary’s words.
But I’m also and more so grateful for affirmation, validation, and visibility.
My wife and I often talk about the time before we were out. Individually, we had similar experiences.
We watched every cliché show and film on LGBTQ cable networks, absorbing ourselves within the stories we could find that better reflected who we are and whom we would love. No matter how terrible some of them were.
Sometimes, however, the stories were beautiful and full of truth, love, and light. Sometimes, the stories showed a glimpse into what the future might someday look like.
In Blue Iris, I found such a story.
Tucked in between the poems about various flowers, great oaks, and swamps, is a no frills simple piece. One I found myself longing to read and touch after hearing of Mary’s passing.
I noticed, only just now, the depth of meaning and sharp importance this poem held for me – giving me a glimpse into the simple loving relationship I desired to have someday with another woman.
“Freshen the Flowers, She Said.”
Sitting in my room, alone – in so many ways – the words and feeling in this poem leapt off the page and into my heart.
Curious, I read other poems, looking for more clues and more affirmation. I read about Mary’s life and realized the connection of “family.”
Today, I realized more words of affirmation, validation, and visibility. They grace the sometimes unread pages – just four simple words:
“For Molly Malone Cook.”
Thank you, Mary.
For being brave enough to write those words. Visible enough for a lesbian from East Tennessee to see it and to know that she, too, would be ok.
Mary’s books and individual poems have been included in love notes, gifts, and private thoughts in my marriage to my wife and in our falling in love with each other to start with. They have led to tender moments and served as prayers, comforts, and reminders to be mindful.
Mary was intensely private, but if I had the chance, I would ask her about her love. With Molly. And I would ask her about visibility and how much things have changed in just the past decade.
Less than a decade ago, when I came out and when I started dating then eventually becoming engaged and marrying my wife – people made a point to tell me they “did not agree” (which is still a baffling phrase to me).
In the past few months, I have witnessed some of these same people celebrate the engagements and relationships of LGBTQ mutual friends. They’ve had a change of heart and mind.
It’s people like Mary and Molly, Edie and Thea, Ellen, Amy Ray, Emily Sailiers, and so many others living their everyday lives who we have to thank for that progress and change. The ones who lived through the darker years and endured the heartache, yet still chose to be visible despite the costs.
When I came out, I lost friends, relationships, ideals, and even some dreams and desires I had long held. Still, I found love, honesty, true friendship, and belonging that transcended the rejections. I am lucky to live in this time to experience and witness such rapid change and progress. Even though so much progress remains (and needs) to be made.
The costs have been much steeper and more perilous in the past. Yet, many brave souls came out anyway, and loved.
I sit in my home tonight, with my copy of Blue Iris on one side, my children on the other, my wife in the next room, getting things ready for the kids’ bedtime.
I sit in a new security, and I have found the love I desired back when I read Blue Iris for the first time. I have even found some societal acceptance – more than I ever dreamed would be possible at this point in my life.
Here I am – in my wonderful, simple, beautiful lesbian life.
Doing my best to be mindful of how wild and precious it is.
So, thank you, Mary.
You said you saved yourself.
Honestly – did you notice?
You saved so many of us, too.