Notes from an Urban Cabin #26 | "What Did You Notice?" and other questions
For 30 years or so, on a succession of refrigerators, I kept a copy of a Mary Oliver poem.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
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?
— Mary Oliver
I found the poem in the delightful and short-lived magazine Wigwag, which I found at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore, which I used to visit periodically in grad school to cruise the remainders table, where books of poetry might be marked down to a quarter or a dime. It was the Wigwag page, trimmed to show only the poem, that I kept on a succession of fridges. When I moved to a new apartment in 2015, I decided it was time to retire that poem and seek other refrigerator poems.
That's one reason. Another reason: that closing question. The first question made the poem sound a little like a catechism, and that last question haunted me. I didn't really have a plan.
If you pay attention to poetry news at all, you know that Mary Oliver died recently. Many of us who liked her work have been revisiting it, dipping back into her books, finding old favorites, posting them. The many stories about her passing and her impact must have sent a lot of people to Amazon; one day almost all of her books were "currently out of stock."
I haven't read her work as much in the past decade as I did when I was younger, but I did track down most of my Oliver books and gather them in one place, not as a shrine but as something more than convenience. I'm still fond of "The Summer Day" (I used to give a copy of it to each young person who left the newsroom for another job), but the Oliver poem most on my mind now is another with powerful questions:
What did you notice?
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.
What did you hear?
The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.
What did you admire?
The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.
What astonished you?
The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.
What would you like to see again?
My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue,
her recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness,
her strong legs, her curled black lip, her snap.
What was most tender?
Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.
What was most wonderful?
The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
The green beast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve of the first snow—
so the gods shake us from our sleep.
— Mary Oliver
This poem has sometimes struck me as an intake questionnaire for someone arriving in the next life. So it's the Oliver poem I've been keeping close, not just or even primarily because of Oliver's death, but because my great-aunt, the one I moved to Pittsburgh to help care for, died two weeks ago. At last and too soon. She would have been 96 on Sunday.
She lived a long, full life that touched many people. She retired from Bell Telephone 33 years ago, and five of her former coworkers (most of whom she supervised) came to the visitation. Her next-door neighbors and former landlord came. So did some of the aides who cared for her. And of course family, from six states, connected to her through both her mom's and her dad's side of the family. As I said in the obituary, if all our stories about her were written, PNC Park could not contain them.
I don't know where to start. But I can tell you this. She was a noticer. Whenever I drove her somewhere, she noticed the clouds, the trees, the blooming plants, the sky. And she commented on it. "What a beautiful day," she would say if it was sunny. She noticed when the plants I occasionally brought her were about to bloom, or at various stages of blooming, something always worth commenting on.
She noticed when someone would set a bag on the floor or otherwise introduce something out of place. She noticed clothing, and often complimented me on what I was wearing. She noticed when people weren't eating and would always want to get them something or offer them something from her plate. She remembered people's favorite foods and often had them on hand when someone came to visit.
She noticed interior weather as well; she was a pro at sizing people up, at breaking tension with a joke and a smile, and sometimes at setting people straight. She always noticed children, and knew what to say or ask to draw them into conversation, or when to leave them alone.
Once when I was driving her home from a hospital after dark, I told her to watch for the 79 South signs. She saw the first one before I did.
There's more, so much more, to say. For now I'll end with this.
I don't know what happens when we pass from death into new life. But sometimes it comforts me to think of that story in the gospel of John when some of the disciples have returned to fishing, and they figure out that a man cooking on the beach is the resurrected Jesus, and Peter jumps out of the ship and swims toward him as fast as he can, and Jesus asks for some of the fish they caught and makes them breakfast. I imagine we arrive on that beach, and our loved ones who died before us are there to greet us, and Jesus is there at his campfire.
It's common to have regrets when a loved one dies. In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff's fragmented and lyrical chronicle of grief in the year after his son's accidental death, he asks, "What do I do with this basket of regrets?" Someone who heard my basket of regrets and was trying to help me sort them asked a question: What would my aunt do when I get to that beach?
She would see me coming and smile, I said. She had a great smile. She'd give me a hug of welcome — not a long tight hug, she wasn't that kind of hugger — and then she'd shift into the confident command mode she developed in all those years as a supervisor at the phone company (and kept, to some extent, to her last day). She would orient me to the place, introduce me around, ask Jesus to give me something to eat. And if there was going to be singing, she'd tell me where it was and when we needed to be there.
And you. What questions are keeping you thinking, or keeping you company, lately? What are you noticing? What astonishes you? What good and unexpected question has someone asked you lately? And what writing have you turned to after a loved one dies?
As always, thank you for reading.