Mary Oliver Taught Me To Breathe A Little As A Mom

My best friend texted me to ask if I'd heard Mary Oliver had died. Deep in a day of toddler tantrums, I had not, but upon reading the message, I began to cry. My response was surely some combination of the uproar of hormones that come with pregnancy, but also genuine sadness that this world had lost such a powerful woman, someone who understood and embraced the kind of raw emotion my daughter and I wrestle with daily.

Sometimes when I am deep inside of just exactly this kind of day, Oliver's words echo in my mind, not quite a chastisement, but an insistence, that I snap out of it. "Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?" I feel a flush of air, a coming back to this exact moment.

Mary Oliver was an American poet, a Pulitzer prize winner, and a celebrator of the mundane. Her simple, yet searing messages were always there when I needed them, tucked into the pages of the books on my bedside table, anchored by a bowl of heart-shaped rocks collected over the years by my husband. Her poems are uncomplicated; they are about rivers and blossoms, weariness and hope. They are for everyone and they are about everything, filled with so little pretension that you immediately feel connected — to her, to the experience she's describing.

My tears seemed mildly excessive, and then, in chatting with my friend, about, as it would have seemed to an outsider reading our exchange, the loss of a dear mutual friend, I realized what made me so piercingly sad. "She always made me feel good about an everyday life," I texted. Indeed, I turned to Oliver’s words when life felt drab, and they, in turn, reassured me not that there was magic awaiting me beyond the everyday, but that the everyday, itself, was magic.

It's so easy to feel like the cycle of meals and naps and tiny person outbursts are nothing but a nuisance, that they are the part of life I'd willingly discard if possible.

My life is an everyday life. I don't have a title, a schedule, an income. Most days I don't even put on pants. Currently I don't actually even fit into pants. I am a stay-at-home mom with a 16-month-old and a baby on the way. We are in the middle of seemingly endless, frigid grey weather and a new phase (please let it be a phase) from my toddler: complete and utter devastation if anything is happening except for 100 percent full attention and physical contact from Mama.

I fill the quintessential "look at my adorable daughter" quota on social media on the regular. She is adorable. We do many charming, nurturing, beautiful things together that feel worth documenting. But in the moments stringing together those shiny moments, in the meat of it, I am also, mostly, bored out of my mind. I often feel listless, untethered, just passing the minutes between one meal or chunk of sleep until the next. I get lost in this listlessness, especially when I find myself spending too much time in the highly sensationalized, perfectly angled, deeply edited, carefully chosen words of social media. I am a full and willing participant, but in that space, it's so easy to feel like the cycle of meals and naps and tiny person outbursts are nothing but a nuisance, that they are the part of life I'd willingly discard if possible.

One moment, one poem by my girl, Mary, so easy to read, convinces me I am missing the point. Those moments of ritual and togetherness and raw emotions are not the refuse, but rather, they are life, itself. They are to be treasured. She writes in "The Messenger":

My work is in loving the world...

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be


The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude to be given a mind and heart

and these body-clothes,

a mouth with which to give shouts of joy

The word "work" is so arresting in this piece. I am so quick to assert I don't work; I don't have a job. I fully acknowledge the intensity and importance of being a mother, and yet somehow can't quite claim it as my purpose. It seems not enough. Yet here, Mary Oliver boldly asserts that her work is loving, standing still, being astonished. In reading the force with which she claims that, I am convinced. I am convinced her work, that consuming work of observation and celebration, is the most important work in the world. It is not what she does in between doing.

Though never a mother herself, I cannot help but feel Mary Oliver was the ultimate mothers' poet. She reveled in the world around her, not disregarding the flaws, the smells, the pains, the textures of life, but celebrating how connected and how real those things make this world. As adults, we so often lose this ability to see, to open ourselves to the wonder of the quotidien; it gets smothered in busyness and exhaustion, but as a parent, an opportunity arises to rekindle that wonder, both through the eyes of our children and in the forced slowing down of living alongside them. Everything takes time: the walk to the car is sometimes excruciatingly long; meals are played with and explored with every sensation; the tiniest nothings found on the kitchen floor are objects of awe. What if we immersed ourselves, too, in those moments instead of rushing by them? We have a chance not only to reawaken to that wonder, but to gently show it to these tiny people we love most.

In "Upstream," she writes:

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale helatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin-flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And I can feel it! I can feel my desire to give my daughter a tactile, fragrant, vibrant, living world, grounded by dirt and seasons and life and death. I can feel a ghost of my own memory of experiencing the world in such a way, a ghost of the just discovering, long before Instagram stories or Facebook likes. I can feel how peaceful I feel, even when things are not going perfectly, when I sense my "place in the family of things," as she says in one of her most famous poems, "Wild Geese." It is a cycle of becoming, alongside my daughter, a figuring out, sometimes filled with growing pains. I read those words and I remember that toddlers cry as they try to make sense of a huge world that inundates them with information and expectations when they can barely communicate.

I read those words and I remember I don't need to do more than take my daughter to play in the grass, lay in my arms, eat together, cry together, revel; I don't need to be perfect, to be a Pinterest mom, to get everything done. I read the words and feel that this is all there is: there is earth, and there are plants and bodies, and the way they move within that earth, and that alone is everything. My waiting for something else, for the passage of time, is not even real.

I cried for Mary Oliver, because she made me feel like my seemingly very mundane life is the most ripe with possibility. And it felt like a huge loss to have that clear bit of light leave this world.

I guess now, it is my time. It's my time to take the lessons she so gratefully stored for me, for all of us, in the pages on my bedside table. Today, in her honor, I will put away the phone, skip the weird junction of always rushing and waiting, and, as Oliver says, so clearly, so simply, I will heed her "Instructions for life / Pay attention / Be astonished / Tell about it."

Today I will focus on those tiny jelly beans of baby toes, and the smell of my daughter’s slightly dry winter skin after bath time, and slow dances before naps, and the way her face literally explodes with light when she sees me first thing in the morning.

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for showing me that my everyday life is the most precious. You were a gift. Thank you for reminding me that my life is, too.