Mary Oliver

I’ve not read Mary Oliver’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems American Primitive. Ms. Oliver is often compared to Emily Dickinson and her work frequently focuses on the natural world. In 2016, I read her collection of essays Upstream in which she reflects on her willingness to lose herself within the beauty and mysteries of nature and the world of literature. Even though I am an admittedly slow reader, I believe I ‘rushed’ through that first reading for it left no impression on me.

Of late, it whispers to me from the bookcase. I surrendered and placed it on the corner of my desk. Every morning since mid-December, I read from Upstream, rarely more than three paragraphs at a single sitting after which I contemplate and savor the words. This time, I am thoroughly enjoying each word, sentence, paragraph and essay.

As I mentioned, I have always considered myself a slow reader and often wonder how and why a person could and would read a book, any book quickly. As professor Karen Swallow Prior writes in the Winter 2018 issue of Plough Magazine, “Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page

“… I’ve noticed that many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that they often skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean… Attending to the words on the page requires deliberation, and this improves with practice.”

And so, I practice with Ms. Prior’s excellent advice,

“…habitual skimming is for the mind what a steady diet of fast food is for the body. Speedreading is not only inferior to deep reading but may bring more harm than benefits: one critic cautions that reading fast is simply a ‘way of fooling yourself into thinking you’re learning something… speedreading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence.’”

Shame! I read five paragraphs this morning but gleaned an important and uncompromising concept: inherited responsibility. Mary Oliver heard the phrase used in a speech by a speaker who had inherited great wealth but was sensitive and committed to using it for the public good.

“It is precisely how I feel,” she writes “who have inherited not measurable wealth but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground – and, inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question – never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me – to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live caringly.”

Though I suspect my ‘great ones’ are indeed not the same as Mary Oliver’s, I am confident that they have taught me to observe with passion, to think with patience and to live caringly.

As we enter 2019, I would ask you to reflect on those writers and thinkers from whom you have inherited an ‘immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas,’ and to use what you have learned from them to make the world a better place to be.

Observe with Passion

Think with Patience

Live Caringly

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  1. Sage advice, surely. No writer ever wrote to be speed-read.
    Some paragraphs must be taken one at a time. Emerson’t writing… The Oversoul, in particular, is one of the most dense and rich (like fudge) that I have ever attempted to swallow, but so worth the slowing down!