Are You Breathing Just a Little, and Calling it a Life?

My grandmother is dying. 

I returned earlier this week from visiting her weepy and raw. She is currently set up with hospice care in my parents’ home, spending her days fighting the inevitable. During my visit I got a small taste of what my parents are doing, the way the days melt away into blurs of moments, meal times a tertiary thought, heavy discussions overwhelming most minute conversations.

I cried for most of the 4-hour drive home and I’ve been walking around in a sort of hangover since. Yesterday morning I saw the news of Mary Oliver’s passing and bolted for the bathroom at work to sob in a stall. 


I’ve spoken before about mourning famous people. I know it’s a bit odd, but I also know that each time someone famous dies – whether I feel the sting or not – I see waves of collective grief all around. It’s strangely comforting, particularly when I am affected, because it helps validate my own feelings (though I rarely feel the need for such validation; it’s still welcome).


In losing Mary Oliver, the anticipatory grief and sadness I’ve been experiencing about my grandmother has been made larger. In losing Mary Oliver, I found myself remembering how her words affected me as I slowly healed from a devastating bout of depression four years ago. And, in losing Mary Oliver, the world lost a bright figure who was capable of bringing comfort and awe to millions. 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

I have a journal from 2015-2016 that is filled with pain and anguish. It’s also filled with pages of quotes. Snippets from poems and stories and essays that I wrote over and over again, as though they were stitches I was using to close up old wounds. Oliver’s words dominate much of those pages, as refrains like, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”


Her words became mantras, reminders, questions to ask myself. Am I breathing just a little and calling it a life? Am I paying attention? Where am I, in the overall order of things? Nature, being outside, heading up to the mountains for a weekend – these were the only things that actually brought me out of the dark cave I’d set up camp in. And Oliver translated my feelings of amazement. She offered up those feelings, those useful, life-filled emotions, in poems and essays. They took me back to the bank of the river. They ushered me to paths that meandered through vast stretches of tall pines. They reminded me of the transcendence of the wilderness, the way I felt insignificant (in a good way) while beholding the unfathomable space and primal existence of nature. 


Today Literary Hub shared a lovely ode to Mary Oliver, written by Brandon Taylor. He writes how Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” made him “want to breathe again.” She did that for me, too. Taylor also discusses the way her work has been dismissed by some in the poetry community. Of her unabashed sentimentality and gratitude, Taylor writes, 

We fear sentiment, I think, because it undresses us. But “Wild Geese” is one of those poems that strides unabashedly into sentiment, into feeling. I think its gentleness in the face of its material is what makes some people titter about its “message.” About its “simplicity.” People call it a self-help poem. They are derisive. They reduce the poem. They are unkind. Even I engage in a little “Wild Geese” apologia when I am with friends who know more and better about poetry. But in my heart, I still think of “Wild Geese.” I still return to it in moments when it feels impossible to stay in the world.

And yesterday, I came across this incredible tribute by poet Sam Sax:

 I know I’m not alone in being touched by Oliver’s work. And it’s more than just loving it or finding certain lines saccharine enough to act as inspirational quotes. Her words have the power to bring you to attention. Notice the tiny details. To live. Live. Live, dammit.  


I love so many of her poems, and most of them are pieces you see all the time, the lines used everywhere, the accessible stuff, the unadorned wisdom. I also love her essays, the way she opens up the world and spends time observing and recounting. My favorite of hers comes from the essay collection Upstream and is called “Bird.” 

It’s a short piece about an injured gull that she takes in. She spends time helping the reader get to know the bird and takes us through the tenderness of his death. It’s about more than the bird, of course, and to me it was about faith. A brazen, wholehearted faith – a kind I was searching for (and still am) but haven’t found. I cannot read it or talk about it without crying my eyes out, and I don’t quite know why. I only know that I love it and that I think it’s still trying to teach me something I haven’t yet learned. 


Today as I sit with all of this, I find myself softened when I think of my grandmother. I wish I could share some of Mary Oliver’s words with her, explain my gratitude, talk about mortality. My grandmother is terrified of death. Yet she’s going to go any moment, following closely behind Oliver. I hope they meet and talk about their shared love of nature. I hope my grandmother finds peace. I hope that those who need Oliver’s words continue to find them, forever and always.