“I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” by Mary Oliver *

Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust.


“I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” by Mary Oliver, via Red Bird: Poems, Beacon Press.

(originally shared 04/29/2016)

Mary Oliver and Percy. (Photo © 2005 by Rachel Giese Brown.)
Mary Oliver and Percy. (Photo © 2005 by Rachel Giese Brown.)


Ms. Oliver died yesterday, January 17, 2019. She was 83.

She is the reason Words for the Year exists.

She will be missed.

Krista Tippet did a beautiful (and rare) interview–“Listening to the World”–with Ms. Oliver in 2015. You may listen and read the transcript at OnBeing.org.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has often written on Ms. Oliver. Read Popova’s piece “Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate” and also listen to Ms. Oliver read her iconic poem “Wild Geese” (the first poem I ever posted here.)

13 thoughts on ““I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” by Mary Oliver *

  1. Mike Mirarchi

    I was heartbroken to hear of Mary Oliver’s passing yesterday. What a loss! The world is a darker place without her. 😥 The poet Alison Luterman wrote yesterday: “What a bright light Mary Oliver was and is, and how much we treasure what she gave us. I hope she’s in a sunlit field now, with bees and birds and deer and foxes and long grass, and a beloved dog nearby.”

    Her NY Times obituary quoted from her 2011 interview in O: The Oprah Magazine, where she talked about having been sexually abused as a child. She said, “I had a very dysfunctional family and a very hard childhood, so I made a world out of words. It was my salvation.” I love that she made a world out of words, and that it was her salvation. And I love that she’s the reason Words for the Year Exists. ❤

    When Death Comes

    When death comes
    like the hungry bear in autumn;
    when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

    to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
    when death comes
    like the measle-pox

    when death comes
    like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
    and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
    and I consider eternity as another possibility,

    and I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular,

    and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
    tending, as all music does, toward silence,

    and each body a lion of courage, and something
    precious to the earth.

    When it's over, I want to say all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.
    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

    When it's over, I don't want to wonder
    if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

    I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
    or full of argument.

    I don't want to end up simply having visited this world

    — Mary Oliver

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Brian Dean Powers

    When, as an adult, I decided to take writing poetry seriously, Mary Oliver was my model. I shamelessly imitated her until my own style developed. I could not have had a better beginning. I simply would not be who I am without her poems and her Handbook. I am grateful for what she gave me, gave us.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. This morning when I woke, Mary Oliver was still alive in my world.

    You see, I had unplugged from the “noise” of the world yesterday, as I seem to do more and more, so I had not yet heard the news of her passing.

    My dear sweet friend, Michelle knows my cave-dwelling tendencies and shared the news with me this morning by texting me a couple of links about Oliver’s passing.

    My first thought was, “83? She was so young.”

    My second thought was, “Lymphoma? That’s what my little Spot girl had.” I had written a poem actually after my Spot dog’s diagnosis very reminiscent of Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

    My third thought was, “I have to write something back, say something…” but I couldn’t find any words. Even with Michelle, all I could text were pithy sad-face emoticons and a heart. I finally said, “thank you for telling me.”

    You see, she and I have recently been mulling over if we are Red Pill sort of persons or Blue Pill people. (You remember The Matrix right? Red Pill shows you the truth, pulls back the curtain, steals your naivety…The red pill is the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The Blue Pill lets you “stay asleep,” let’s you stay blissfully unaware, keeps the cancer diagnosis a secret, turns off the news station before stories of another world catastrophe. The Blue Pill lets you go on thinking your favorite poet is still alive.

    Michelle and I are both Red Pill girls.

    But this morning, I wanted to go back and choose the Blue Pill.

    But either way, Mary Oliver would still be gone. Physically. Her words remain. My memories of her remains. The idea of her remains…and isn’t that how we all knew her, anyway? Through her words and recordings and books and our ideas of her? So what’s changed? That’s what I try to ask myself. I never knew her. She saved my life, yes…multiple times…but she never knew that, she never knew me.

    But maybe she did.

    Maybe on some sleepy Sunday morning, just for fun, she googled the name of one of her poems. Maybe she somehow mysteriously landed here, or on a previous blog of mine in a past lifetime where I lamented my little dog Spot and the lymphoma I knew would steal her from me. Maybe she thought of her own little dog Percy and maybe shed a tear for both of our losses, maybe she smiled serenely when she read how she saved my life and how grateful I would forever be for her, for her words.

    Maybe she even looks over my shoulder now as I type this at my dining room table, the washing machine spinning on cold cycle, my new little dog laying on the kitchen rug looking up at me As though I were just as wonderful, as the perfect moon. The other dog on the sofa asleep and oblivious to the news of the world. The robins hopping around my backyard, the swallows imploring me to fill the feeder, the thrush singing “of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything,” the poinsettia on the counter desperately clinging to life, the floor that needs sweeping, the words that wouldn’t come and now won’t stop, just like the tears, the stupid little tears for someone I never met. The cows moo in the distance telling me to cry on my own time, that now is the time I’m supposed to go feed them. Maybe Oliver looks over my shoulder, nudges me up from my chair, and says, “Enough of that, Christina, you have work to do. ‘Your work is loving the world.’ Over and over again.”

    You, gentle reader, will probably end up seeing my comment again, revised into a future post. But I wanted to share my unedited thoughts here as they tumbled into my head. I wanted to try to process my grief, here, with you. Because if you are reading this, you too are trying to process your own grief. But alas the world spins madly on. For me, and for you, too.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    from “Wild Geese”

    Goodbye Ms. Oliver, and just in case you really ARE reading over my shoulder, Thank you. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for reminding me what matters most.

    by Mary Oliver

    My work is loving the world.
    Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
    equal seekers of sweetness.
    Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
    Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

    Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
    Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
    keep my mind on what matters,
    which is my work,

    which is mostly standing still and learning to be
    The phoebe, the delphinium.
    The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
    Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

    which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
    and these body-clothes,
    a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
    to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
    telling them all, over and over, how it is
    that we live forever.

    (Published in Thirst)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Mike Mirarchi

      Thank you for this, Christy. What you wrote is so beautiful. I could relate. It feels weird to be grieving so deeply the loss of this woman I’ve never met. I love that Mary Oliver’s poetry saved your life more than once. ❤ I would love to hear about that if you ever feel inspired to share. I went to Quaker meeting this morning, and a woman shared about Mary Oliver's passing and her poetry. I shared and recited from heart the only Mary Oliver poem I can recite from heart, which I really love ("The Uses of Sorrow"). It felt good. 🙂

      There are two tributes to Mary Oliver published since her passing that I enjoyed:




    2. I was drinking my second round of tea in a messy over-crowded morning, when I read about Mary Oliver’s death on NPR. Like you, I never met Oliver, if we talk about physical meet-ups. She, though, saved my life on so many occasions that I feel I knew her all my life.

      Next two hours, I kept checking twitter, instagram, and facebook- New Yorker, NPR, New York times books- articles, favorite poems, and the hashtags with her name. No hashtags were developed. And I felt- Really!! all these stupid pop cultures things draw so much attention, but Oliver’s quiet passing didn’t even create a single crack in that black whole of social media.

      next one hour- I felt heaviness in my stomach as if my fingers wanted to connect some dots for her..maybe a photograph that I took while reading Oliver( so many times I carried her books for long drives and lone hikes), maybe a little poem..

      I wrote this on my blog- just a few words because loss makes me silent..yet I wanted words to be out..

      How you carry heavy things

      When I will get my heart back

      I will show you the black dots of loss

      That don’t fade.

      It’s uncanny how sorrow remains so faithful

      And love breaks

      And all the people you admired once disappear too

      Leaving their rhythms, and words.

      It’s on you- how you carry heavy things-

      Your grief, swollen heart, and poetry books.


      I will miss Mary Oliver. And whenever I will miss her, I will search her in her written words.


  5. Mike Mirarchi


    in memory of Mary Oliver

    It’s impossible to be lonely
    when you’re zesting an orange.
    Scrape the soft rind once
    and the whole room
    fills with fruit.
    Look around: you have
    more than enough.
    Always have.
    You just didn’t notice
    until now.

    — Amy Schmidt


  6. Mike Mirarchi


    Driving down Arlington Ave.,
    past the Parent Navel Orange Tree,
    near Planned Parenthood
    and Pic N Save, I would always
    notice a sign for an insurance
    office that read


    I knew the poet
    lived on the East coast,
    but I loved to think I would find her
    inside, rhapsodizing over claim
    forms and Polaroids of water
    damage, adjusting
    to California as she
    adjusted numbers,
    helping people protect
    their wild and precious lives.

    One day, driving to the farmers’
    market in the Sears parking lot,
    I noticed the sign said

    MARV Oliver.

    That V hit me right
    between the eyes, sharp
    as an arrow. I worried
    someone had shaved the tail
    off Mary’s Y, worried a brother
    had wrested her business away.
    More likely, I knew, I had been
    misreading the sign
    all the while, hoping
    to find the poet in this
    arid region, hoping she could help
    me find the beauty
    along this industrial strip
    with its rangy palm trees,
    its fenced-in belly-
    button fruit.

    I drove on ahead to the farmers’ market,
    in search of blackberries, honey,
    the heaven of appetite, knowing
    if Mary Oliver did own
    an insurance company,
    underneath her name would read

    — Gayle Brandeis


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