Mary Oliver

Alaska's Disaster & Swooning Over Swans

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This week I am in Texas, speaking at a large church in Victoria. So glad and grateful to pour out the words God has given. And going, always, in weakness rather than strength.

Last week, my husband and I escaped town and our relentless schedules and the flood of bad news on our screen. The national news is so constantly jarring, and now this week, Alaska’s news is just as bad. We didn’t go far——just an hour “out the road,” the one road out of town that winds for 60 miles into breathtaking country.

We were lucky. It was foggy, making our disappearance complete. No one knew we were there. It felt like we were a million miles away.

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What were we escaping? What is “Alaska’s Disaster?” This is not my space to talk about politics, but I’ll give it quick nod. (Fellow Alaskans who disagree, let’s agree on grace toward one another, even if we have different views?) Our new governor got elected by promising every Alaskan a check for $3,000 in their mailbox, their full Permanent Fund dividend. (this is complicated and I won’t explain it here.) He did not, however, while running, ever give us his plan to balance Alaska’s budget, which has been in trouble for some time.

Now he’s threatening a 40% budget cut. What gets cut? Education. Headstart and preschool programs. Forty-one percent of the state university budget. Medicare and Medicaid. Farmers. The state ferry system—-which Kodiak and every coastal community depends on. And so much more. They want it all gone. As if there is no other way . ..

So we get in our car and go.

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We go for a walk along the rime-edged shores of Lake Rose Tead, surely one of the most beautiful lakes in Alaska.

There are bald eagles here in scores. One immature eagle let me walk to the base of her misty tree before she lifted off. Glory!

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And the tundra swans are there. They’re new in the neighborhood. They’ve come down from the north, discovering our Kodiak rainforest, our waters thick with food. Our temperate climate.

Sometimes we drive out to and there’s not a swan to be seen. Today, there were 100. We counted.

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And a funny thing happened. The first flock of swans saw were such wild creatures. So skittish. I snuck and slid and hid among the alders, camera around my neck, wanting just a peek. Just a shuttered moment to catch them. And I did. Four sailing swans stayed long enough to let my lens watch them run, rise, and arrow straight into the foggy skies.

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But the rest of them? The 96 others? I slipped surreptitiously along the edge, noiseless, hunched low . . .. and there they were. I crept closer, expecting them to startle and flee, as the others did. Then closer. They did not attend to me at all. Then I stood at water’s edge, a stone’s throw away and they regarded me not at all. I called to them. They just kept pluming and swanning as if I was not there. For ten minutes I stood there, close, feasting on their wildness wondering why they would not flee from me . . ..

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And then this poem by Mary Oliver, which maybe tells me why.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

——-Mary Oliver

I do belong. Even in the wildest of places. Even in whatever protest I join, to protect Alaska’s elderly, the needy, our kids.

The world and the Spirit of God calls to us all.

This is our family too.

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What Are You Doing in Yr Wild+Precious Life? And Sweet Giveaways!

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?"    ----Mary Oliver

I ditched my island a few days ago---for a smaller one, 42 foot fishing vessel  “Dreamer.” I spent the day and nearly the night with a friend, Dave, and his crew. I went with camera and raingear,  to watch how others live and catch fish. To get wet and work on the deck beside them. I went, in short, to see how they lived---the first of many trips ahead on other boats and places and islands, to see about this life on the ocean, how others live it, survive it.


I am beginning (finally!) a sequel to my memoir, Surviving the Island of Graceand already, such grace comes. A new book grants permission for such things.

My job was to stack corks as they were winched on deck. A quarter mile length of corks, piling so high I soon could hardly reach them and had to stand on the rim of the stern to keep going.  At the end of each set, more than hour of cork-stacking later, I was breathless, wet, and ponderous. 

Sometimes we are given holy  moments when we look up from our commute over a river bridge, from cleaning a bathroom, from cutting our elderly mother’s toenails, from surveying the view from a mountain summit, from wiping a baby’s bottom, from stacking corks on the back deck of a fishing boat in Alaska-----and we are astonished.  We find ourselves, suddenly, for a few minutes, strangers in our own lives. How did we get here? How did this life come to us? 

We blink in momentary blindness  as the thin tether of memory and history lets go and we are unmoored, drifting, strangers in our own lives, seeing the strange work of our hands. And a few long seconds later, we wake and remember the decisions that set us exactly where we are, that led us to the man we said yes to and the children that came, to the job interview and the promotion, to the building of the house on the island, to the nursing home where our mother lives, to the stern of a fishing boat. And the flash of possibility is over.

My day on the boat ended at 1 a.m.  It was just dark then.  The small boat  chugged the miles back to my island.  A skiff took me to shore, dropped me off in water deeper than my knee boots. I plunged into icy water, shivering. It woke me. It was a low minus tide, the skirt of the ocean pulled back, our gravel beach  deeper, further than I had seen it for awhile, the ghostly lights of the boat glowing our beach warehouse yellow.  

What was this place? I trudged up the beach with the ocean in my boots, up the long hill, tired from a day and night working on the deck. I did not know myself or this haunted  island or the hulk of house looming in the dark that I walked toward. How have I come here?  Whose life is this?

I opened the door and stood for a moment in the night-still house. I could  hear breathing. I heard the kettle  steaming on the oil stove, saw my mug beside it. The dog stirred and came to me, sniffing and licking my wet legs and feet. Then from the bedroom, “Leslie, is that you?” my husband calls.

I return to my life, my own house. Yes, the house I built with Duncan.  I remember now.

Did we plan our lives? How have they come to us?  Out of a thousand possible places to live and a million people we could have joined----how are we here, with these people, now? There is only one real answer---and it cannot be spoken because it is like the wind and the Spirit that blows through and around us. We don’t know where it comes from or where it is going, but we read in the Psalms, that before we were even made,  “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” 

 Somehow we have chosen. We have chosen again and again the lives we are living, though so much of the time we did not understand what we were choosing. And some of what we are living is what others have chosen for us, what we never would have chosen for ourselves.  

And somehow every path we have taken, the smooth and the rough, is the path already known for us. 

Who can fathom this? But Know it is true. Believe it. 

And believe there is wonder and beauty and love and goodness and purpose even in the hardest places of the life you have chosen, the life you have been given. 

What are you doing with this “one wild and precious life”? 

Instructions for living a life

"Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it." 
    -- Mary Oliver

Sweet Summer Giveaways!

I would like to send you something sweet from this island life. I have just made Rhubarb Ginger jam and Golden Rhubarb Marmelade from the lushness of this island. I’d love to share it with you---along with a copy of my memoir, “Surviving the Island of Grace.”  I wish I could send this to ALL of you---but can only choose four.  How and who do I choose?  I would ask this favor first. Would you share this post and this blog with your friends on Facebook?  Just let me know you’ve done that in the comment section---and then I will put your names in a boot and stick my wet foot in the boot----and the first four that I peel off my foot win!  (Does this sound democratic enough?)   
May the stickiest names win!