Instructions for Living a Life by Nancy Mugele


Mary Oliver died a week ago yesterday and left a sizeable hole in the universe. Yet, she also left us with an incredible legacy in her shared life’s work and I, for one, am so grateful for her writing. In 2007 The New York Times described her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” I believe she was also one of the most beloved.

For over a half century her poems have explored the connection between the natural and the spiritual worlds. She was often inspired to write during long walks as a child growing up in rural Ohio, and later in her adopted hometown of Provincetown, MA.  “I could not be a poet without the natural world,” she wrote. “Someone else could. But not me. For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” In the words of the late poet Lucille Clifton, “she uses the natural world to illuminate the whole world.”

Mary’s was not a happy childhood, but as she told NPR in 2012, she found solace in two great passions that lasted her entire life. “The two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, who were my pals when I was a kid.”

As you know one of my passions is living poets and their works. Poets such as Naomi Nye, who visited Kent School in 2017, and is coming again to the Eastern Shore in April thanks to the Kent County Public Library; Elizabeth Spires, Washington college alumna and professor of creative writing at Goucher College, whose new collection A Memory of the Future was named among the best poetry of 2018 by The New York Times; Catalina Righter and Caroline Harvey, who are the Washington College 2017 and 2018 Sophie Kerr Prize winners respectively; and Rupi Kaur, are on my list. A list on which Mary Oliver will always have a special place.

Mary Oliver speaks directly to me on a human level and I would like to share my top ten rules for living, as learned from the poems in her vast collection.

  1. Every morning the world is created.

  2. Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.

  3. Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.

  4. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

  5. I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.

  6. Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.

  7. Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

  8. Poetry is a life-cherishing force.

  9. When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.

  10. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

You may remember that my copy of Mary Oliver’s Upstream, a collection of essays, ended up in Montana with James, also a lover of nature and the written word. This week, I tried to order another copy from Amazon for my office at Kent School and it is out of stock. I should have figured that. If you have never read any of Mary Oliver’s work I commend all of it to you. I would lend you one of my worn collections, but they are too precious to part with, even for a short time.

Baltimore’s poet Edgar Allan Poe, whose birthday was last weekend, wrote, “I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty.” Mary Oliver’s poetry was absolute Beauty. She wrote her own instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. And, that she did.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

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