A letter, overdue

Dear Mary Oliver-
I am writing to say thank you.
It was December. I was sitting knees to my chest on the cold linoleum floor of a rental home the first time I met you. My then-husband and I were returned Peace Corps volunteers, home after two years in Kenya, and I was negotiating the crazy haze of affluent normalcy: daily hot showers, refrigeration, gas-powered personal transport and a hundred toothpaste choices. My country felt distant and strange. My mother had just informed me of her ovarian cancer diagnosis; in a moment, I was untethered to everything I felt solid or real. A friend gave me the Terry Tempest Williams book Refuge in an effort to help navigate my deluge of emotions, and I had just released one of the most intensive cries of my adult life. It was the kind of cry where there is no bottom, no real resolution beyond more grief, more pain. It frightened me, all the rage and helplessness that coursed through my body. I could only see my mother’s condition in terms of losing her. I heaved, and I wailed. There was nobody to hear.
The book was sitting on the kitchen table within my gaze.
I opened it and read this:
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.

I read it again.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.”
I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t want the world to go on if my mother wouldn’t be a part of it. But in this message was also permission.

Permission to be broken. Permission to look up. Permission to love.
My mother lived, and so did your poetry.
I have read your words at both of my grandmother’s funerals and at countless family gatherings as a welcomed replacement for a more formal grace.
It was your words that connected me to a mysterious man that became a great love.
Your words continue to stop me, often in moments that bind me in some inexplicable way to something larger. You do this with the often simple, exquisite threads of words you continue to share with us, your eager readers.
So, Mary Oliver, I wanted to tell you thank you.
Thank you for becoming a most beautiful touchstone of comfort and a reminder to be quietly astonished with the world. Thank you for forgiving me when I forget to be astonished and fall to self-pity. Thank you for loving dogs. Thank you for sharing your grief and loss and for being a companion through my own.
Thank you for the gift of words, Mary Oliver.
With love,

Shelley McEuen

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