Washed and Washed Out of Our Bones


Dear Friends,

I knew this month our newsletter reflection would be for remembering Mary Oliver and giving thanks for her companionship on our earthly journeys. Rather than write it myself, I decided to ask a poet to do it.

See here a reflection by my friend and Stillpoint presenter, Alex Donovan.

Blessings for your Journey,

Rev. Elizabeth I. Rechter
Executive Director

Washed and Washed Out of Our Bones: Mary Oliver and the Box of Darkness

A reflection by Alex Donovan

Photo of Mary Oliver (right) with her partner Mollie Malone Cook (left)

Photo of Mary Oliver (right) with her partner Mollie Malone Cook (left)

On January 17, the world lost one of the greatest poets and human beings of our time. More than almost any other poet of the 20th and 21st centuries, Mary Oliver wrote poems that found their way into people’s homes, onto their coffee tables and into their dinner conversations. They were, in her words, nothing “fancy.” They transcended the boundaries of academia, thumbed their noses at erudition, and whispered their way into the hearts of millions around the world who would not have otherwise considered themselves lovers of poetry. It’s not because her poems were “common;” it’s because she wrote about common experience in a way that people could recognize as their own, often for the first time. Such writing is a gift that is far from common.

Mary often received criticism from other writers for this, the cause of which I suspect to be some level of jealousy. And it’s true, she took risks with her poems; she was prolific enough that some poems stunned, and some simply shimmered. And the shimmering was good and enough and was important. 

I would love to know, in the 83 years of her life, just how many intimate moments of grief, joy, ecstasy, betrayal, or transcendent peace Mary’s poems were companion to. At how many weddings has “Coming Home” or “How do I love you” become part of the sacred fabric of the day? At how many funerals has “Wild Geese” or “The Summer’s Day” been a healing balm for those who mourn? (“The Summer’s Day” was on the front page of the program at the funeral of my mother, who first introduced me to Mary through her book Thirst. I still don’t know what a prayer is, but like Mary, I am learning how to kneel.) How many moments of quiet courage have been encouraged by poems like “The Journey?” How many people have been led bravely and fiercely to the edge of their own mortality by poems like “Goldenrod Late Fall,” or “When I die,” or “At Blackwater Pond”? 

When Mary died, I was not sad, though I felt the loss deeply. All I could think about was what I pictured as a rushing river of white—of paper, of poetry—of all those moments that she had given to so many in their private and public need—flowing back toward her, from every heart she ever touched, carrying her onward into whatever bright horizon is waiting one who knew how to both live and die as a “bride married to amazement.” 

After all, Mary helped to prepare so many of us for the mystery of death, “that cottage of darkness.” And she leaves us with an invaluable gift in her absence: the gift of ourselves. Because that is what her poems did: they pointed us gently and fiercely to the dark and lovely wholeness of our selves, the “soft animals of our bodies,” our “wild and precious lives.” She left us with the truth, which she lived over and over in her life and in her poetry, that the “box full of darkness:” “this too was a gift.” 

The Uses of Sorrow 
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Some speculate that the “someone” in this poem was her partner of over 40 years, Mollie Malone Cook.  But in the space of the poem, it could be any someone, for any one of us. It could be any darkness. There is a gift in the absence; even in the absence of a great light such as Mary’s. 

And this is what made her, makes her, a great poet and an even greater human, friend, lover, and spiritual companion: she leaves us pointed back to the mystery of our own hearts, as if she has only slipped out the door without us noticing. Like the spiritual guide she was and is, she leaves us more acquainted with our own wisdom than with any one guide, more attuned to our own voice, and more broken open to the natural world, and the world of our wild humanity, that we may know how to let our hearts “break open and never close again to the rest of the world” (“Lead”). She teaches us to sit in darkness—“tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”—until it yields, not to answers but to mystery. To beauty. She teaches us that to live in this world is to be broken again and again, and how marvelously broken we can be, and how life emerges tenderly once more, after all. 

As spiritual directors, chaplains, pastors, soul care workers, counselors—as human beings—Mary leaves us with the truth that beauty is to be found in this world and in ourselves, but that we find it by setting a place at the table for the dark, the shadow, the hurt, the pain, the anger. To find life we must make room for death. And she leaves us, now, as always, with the task of peering into our own “box full of darkness.”  
One of my favorite of Mary’s poems is not one of her more famous ones. It is titled “White Owl Flies Into and Out of a Field.” The poem describes, without sparing us the details, an owl snatching its prey from a field, then ends with these lines: 

so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

The gruesome details become the salvation itself. Death itself heals us of our fear of it. We are washed and washed out of our bones.

As we commit ourselves daily to the work of tending to soul, both ours and others’, may we receive the benediction of darkness, of absence, of sorrow. May we let our hearts play host to shadow and even to death itself. May we know how beautiful a thing bare bone can be. How beautiful a thing death can be. How we are washed and washed clean by the river that in the end is nothing but light, scalding, aortal light. And in the absence of such a voice as Mary’s, even and especially in that absence, may we meet our most desperate truths. May we hear our own voices rising.


Alexandra Donovan is a poet, teacher, and volunteer chaplain. She received her BA from Stanford University and her MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Alexandra’s writing has appeared in Pirene’s Fountain, Selfish Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Gyroscope Review, and Presence Journal. Her first chapbook, Mother Stump, is now available from Yak Press. Learn more on her website→