Mary Oliver died on Thursday, I heard late that night and then reflected on the impact her work has had on my life and felt astounded and thankful. I wrote her a letter a month ago that I never sent, it told the story of how Red Bird swooped through my life to show me that everything is seen & heard. And then how House of Light was intertwined in the strangest synchronicity of beautiful inspiration. I’d like to tell that story now, but last night I opened her collection House of Light, so that I could read the last few poems in the book I hadn’t read yet. The final poem of that collection, about a White Owl, seems appropriate for this moment.
And now, the story of how House of Light became intertwined with a pivotal and inspiring twist of fate in my life…
Several months ago, I got in a very bad fight with my brother. I was living at his house at the time, and one day when I came home, my things were thrown about, destroyed and shattered. When I entered my living space the strongest feeling was that I had no choice but to pack my belongings into my car and not come back. But for the next several weeks I had no stable place to live. Survival tactics in my body kicked in and I went completely numb emotionally. I left for New York, where I had a job for a week. I stayed on the couch in the studio I was working, barely slept and got up early and worked all day. At the end of the week, I planned to go visit an old friend who works in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania at Bucknell University. The night before I left New York however, I walked to the Strand Bookstore, they were open late, until 10 or 10:30. I had on a white hooded sweatshirt, and I remember walking the streets and feeling like a ghost.
When I got to the strand I found the poetry shelf and pulled a tall ladder over to look on the top shelf. I climbed the ladder and sat on the top step, looking through books. I found a collection by Mary Oliver called House of Light, and a Jane Hirschfield book called Lives of the Heart.
In the morning I left for Pennsylvania. I don’t see my friend until later that night, it was a Saturday, and the students at Bucknell had left for fall break, so it was a total ghost town, right before Halloween. We walked the streets at 9pm on a Saturday and didn’t see a single soul, even the house windows were darkened. There is a big old cemetery in Lewisburg, with a black metal fence at the perimeter, a Jane Hirschfield poem marks the entrance. There were a lot of squirrels in the cemetery, collecting acorns. Lewisburg is kind of in the middle of no where, there’s the ivy league college, and a few blocks on Market street with shops, then some houses, then not much for a little while but Pennsylvania hills.
I found my friend on Bucknell campus and we walked through the sports building, through the empty basketball gymnasium. I remember talking about Buddha’s idea of the candle as a metaphor for a human life; that a single candle flame can light innumerable other candles without itself ever being diminished.
We returned to my friend’s apartment, which was bare, he had a mattress on the floor in one bedroom, two couches in fresh couch covers, nothing in the fridge but ketchup and mustard. There were candles and and lighters to light them, he was living like a monk I told him, but he hadn’t considered the idea. I unrolled a small campers matt and a pillow and set up in the second bedroom.
He was out for work early in the morning, my plan was to focus on writing at the Bucknell library. I was working on a screenplay and a group of poems. I opened Mary Oliver before leaving the house that morning, and started at the beginning. Was particularly struck by the third poem in the collection:
For the first few days of being there, I spent all day in the library, chipping away at writing projects and reading The Gospel in Brief by Leo Tolstoy. At the end of each day, from 11pm-midnight, my friend and I would sit on the couches and talk, reflect, and eat pumpkin pie. By the third day or so, it felt as if my body’s numbness had passed its limit, or perhaps I was letting my guard down, and my organs all started to reveal how constricted and tense they were from the recent blow-out of stress hormones; I couldn’t get a full breath. Being unable to breathe became so distracting that I couldn’t focus on writing, could only read for short periods of time. By all physical signs I needed to stop, regain my breath and see what wound needs to be healed. I begin just sitting on the concrete step outside my friends apartment, with my face in the sun, trying to breathe and not worry. This lasts about two days, I’m reading a little bit at a time of Tolstoy’s gospel, and occasionally visiting Oliver’s House of Light. I have a picture of the book on the step where I was sitting:
In the afternoon of the second day of just breathing, I’m sitting on the concrete step, eyes closed face in the sun, and it suddenly starts to feel as if the light is soothing and entering my body. I take a breath, open my eyes, the world looks blue, I decide to go for a walk. I round a corner of the sidewalk and I suddenly have a feeling that is utterly striking. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, because it all happens in an instant, like a flash, but everything is understood perfectly and in totality. I have to write it in several sentences, but this feeling and all interlinking happen simultaneously; At once I feel as if I am inside my own body, and also somewhere far beyond the world, and the link between the two states of presence feels like falling snow, and in the falling snow there is the feeling of being very close to a blank canvas, with my eyes.
I immediately recognize this feeling as a gift. It is a seed that landed in a place that it could grow. It felt as if my candle had been re-lit after having been blown out.
I spend another day or two in Lewisburg before returning to New Jersey. When I’m driving out of Pennsylvania there is white mist rolling over the hills and mountains, the road is foggy. The first thing I do in New Jersey is drive to an art supply store and arrange a custom canvas order, so that I can begin as soon as possible to carry out the direction of the Falling Snow. I’m not sure where I’m going to live, let alone have space to paint, but I order the canvases anyway, and go about figuring it out.
The next day I text an artist friend about needing a painting studio, asking if she had any leads. She puts me in touch with Donna who runs the ChaShaMa studios in Matawan, NJ, and I arrange to see the space. ChaShaMa is like a matrix glitch, on the under-side of the map, its down a suddenly steep hill in a recently outfitted space under a liquor store. Next to the ChaShaMa entrance is a taxi service, lines of turquoise mini-vans and a big garage door. Donna is welcoming and the space is great and affordable, and so I begin renting a studio space. While I wait for the canvas order to arrive, I set the studio up, keeping it minimal. I keep three books in the studio, Mary Oliver’s Devotions, a book of van Gogh’s letters, and a book of Agnes Martin writings.
A few weeks pass, before I take out Mary Oliver’s book House of Light again. One evening before going to the studio, I pick up the book and open it randomly, trying to decide whether or not to bring it with me. The poem it flips open to I hadn’t seen before:
It turns out Mary Oliver was poet-in-residence at Bucknell University in 1985-86.
I am currently working on a series of 12 paintings called Falling Snow. They are uniformly 60”x 60” on unprimed cotton canvas, prepared with clear gesso. Each painting has a lightly drawn pencil grid, and the grid spaces are filled in with brush strokes of white oil paint, in varying degrees of gentleness and luminosity.