Mary Oliver

What Saves You?

When I am among the trees, 
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines, 
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment, 
and never hurry through the world 
but walk slowly, and bow often. 
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.” ~ Mary Oliver

For poet Mary Oliver, the trees - the willows and the honey locust, the beech, the oaks, and the pines - save her. We all need saving from time to time. I know I do. When we are “distant from the hope of ourselves” for whatever reason, we look to our personal sources of encouragement and wisdom to instruct and inspire. Nature is that source for Oliver, as it is for many poets and writers. I’ve been reading Terry Tempest Williams memoir, Refuge, in which she pays homage to her landscape. “Only the land’s mercy and a calm mind can save my soul,” she writes as she drives across the Great Basin. “If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found."

When we write or speak about those things that “save" us, an element of the sacramental creeps in. In the short passage above, Terry Tempest Williams uses the words like holy, sacred, soul, mercy, and pilgrimage, all words we associate with religious experiences. Indeed, the word “save” itself is loaded with religious connotation for those of us who grew up in the Christian tradition. We were raised to believe in the “saving power” of faith in God and Jesus Christ, a gift that was there for the asking through simple grace.

I suspect nature is a saving grace for many people, though most of us don’t have the same facility for description as do the poets and writers who honor it so beautifully, so religiously. Today when I awoke the room was filled with the particular brightness that only sun on new fallen snow can offer. Pristinely white, not yet marred by traffic or footprint, the ground outside was aglitter with trillions of tiny snowflakes etched in ice. I’m not a fan of winter or snow, but even I was struck by the silent, perfect beauty of my view out the window. 

Am I "distant from the hope of myself" these days? Perhaps a little. That particular line in Oliver’s poem always strikes at my heart. It is so poignant. We all have those hopes for ourselves. We want to be more - creative, compassionate, attentive, loving, patient, mindful. We want, as Oliver says, to have “goodness and discernment,” to “never hurry through the world.” We pick and worry at ourselves and our lives, discontent with each minute. But she is right - when I can walk outdoors among the trees or especially along the waterside somewhere, I feel content, fulfilled, peaceful. I feel as if I belong, as if I am enough just as I am.


But winter is hard. There is little opportunity for outdoor walking for me, there are no green leafed trees to sough and sigh and sing me their soothing song.  I have to find other saviors, and I am trying to be patient with myself as I search. Sometimes a cup of tea sipped from a beautiful china cup, both dogs curled on the couch next to me, a good book or two close by, some Chopin or Debussy playing softly in the background - sometimes that can save me. Those few minutes are reminders to slow down and savor, to “walk slowly and bow often” to the comforting peace and warmth of my home and the little animals who depend on me. 

Reading and writing - yes, they can save me. The power of words pulls me in, but also sets me free. It lights the way toward what a good life can mean, and connects me to the world and every person in it. 

The end of Mary Oliver’s poem gives us a mandate of sorts, one I try to remember when I most need saving from all the petty grievances I harbor against myself. “It’s simple..You too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine."

On this cold winter day, I hope you find what saves you. May you go easy with it and shine.