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A Coda to Cameron Week
I am sitting in Cameron’s room, which is now our guest room and also where Charlie, my husband and Cameron’s father, meditates. The room has a little chest covered with items that inspire Charlie, including a Buddha, many books about spiritual practice, a photo of Cameron, a photo of the sun rising on the Eastern-most point of Massachusetts on January 1, 2000 (remember the Y2K scare?), a photo of prayer flags on a mountain in Bhutan, a chime, many candles, and many many books of poetry.
Even as Charlie and I studied poetry in high school and college, I think we only began to understand poetry during Cameron’s life when we experienced for ourselves how darkness reveals truths and sadness breeds hope. As a dear friend wrote to us—a friend whose own life has been changed by her time with Cameron—the greatest ministry comes out of weakness, not strength.
During Cameron’s life and the years that have followed, our favorite poet became and remains Mary Oliver. She is a poet for people who are afraid of the unknown, who are experiencing grief of any kind, who think about death, who wonder about life. In a nutshell, she is a poet for parents who love children living in the shadow of illness.
Today, sitting quietly in Cameron’s room, I have gone on a Mary Oliver bender. Here are a few of my favorites (which are, not coincidentally, the favorites of many other people as well).
For all of the parents who are loving their child who is sick, who are struggling with their child’s illness, who are angry about their situation, who are fearing their child’s death, who are grieving, and who are being changed through all of it: Your child’s life is nourishing your life. I believe this to be true. I hope you believe it too, if not quite yet then eventually.
- THE SUMMER DAY
by Mary Oliver
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?
2. WILD GEESE
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
3. WHEN DEATH COMES
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
And this last one is my husband Charlie’s personal favorite.
THE BUDDHA’S LAST INSTRUCTION
by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light ”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I’m not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.