(The view from my mother’s final resting place, along with my grandparents and an aunt, Salt Lake City, Utah)

On September 21, 2004 I received a phone call about 11am. I was in the office at small church. The caller was my mother’s roommate, a long time friend. My mother had a massive heart attack in the middle of the night and died. I left work and drove to her home, spending time with her body before she was taken away.

My relationship with my mother was complicated. She was a lovely, charming, delightful, funny, woman. She was also profoundly damaged. She was 65.

In her memory, a Mary Oliver poem. Complicated with a mix of delight, joy, and sorrow, including a child who has worked to find her own voice.

Mary Oliver – Flare


Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.

It is not the sunrise,
which is a red rinse,
which is flaring all over the eastern sky;

it is not the rain falling out of the purse of God;

it is not the blue helmet of the sky afterward,

or the trees, or the beetle burrowing into the earth;

it is not the mockingbird who, in his own cadence,
will go on sizzling and clapping
from the branches of the catalpa that are thick with blossoms,
that are billowing and shining,
that are shaking in the wind.


You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your
great-grandfather’s farm, a place you visited once,
and went into, all alone, while the grownups sat and
talked in the house.
It was empty, or almost. Wisps of hay covered the floor,
and some wasps sang at the windows, and maybe there was
a strange fluttering bird high above, disturbed, hoo-ing
a little and s taring down from a messy ledge with wild,
binocular eyes.
Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of
animals; the give-offs of the body were still in the air,
a vague ammonia, not unpleasant.
Mostly, though, it was restful and secret, the roof high
up and arched, the boards unpainted and plain.
You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner,
on the last raft of hay, dazzled by so much space that seemed
empty, but wasn’t.
Then–you still remember–you felt the rap of hunger–it was
noon–and you turned from that twilight dream and hurried back
to the house, where the table was set, where an uncle patted you
on the shoulder for welcome, and there was your place at the table.


Nothing lasts.
There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,

I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.


Nothing is so delicate or so finely hinged as the wings
of the green moth
against the lantern
against its heat
against the beak of the crow
in the early morning.

Yet the moth has trim, and feistiness, and not a drop
of self-pity.

Not in this world.


My mother
was the blue wisteria,
my mother
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
oh, unforgettable!

I bury her
in a box
in the earth
and turn away.
My father
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust,
was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.


I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

I give them–one, two, three, four–the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth.
May they sleep well. May they soften.

But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life.


Did you know that the ant has a tongue
with which to gather in all that it can
of sweetness?

Did you know that?


The poem is not the world.
It isn’t even the first page of the world.

But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.

It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.


The voice of the child crying out of the mouth of the
grown woman
is a misery and a disappointment.
The voice of the child howling out of the tall, bearded,
muscular man
is a misery, and a terror.


Therefore, tell me:
what will engage you?
What will open the dark fields of your mind,
like a lover
at first touching?


there was no barn.
No child in the barn.

No uncle no table no kitchen.

Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks.


When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the dili gent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.

Mary Oliver


About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
This entry was posted in death, Mary Oliver, mother. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mother

  1. I am awestruck by this poem. I'm going to print it out and think on it some more. Thank you for sharing it.I'll be thinking of you today as you remember her, as you think of that child you were and are and her influence on your life.

  2. Catharine says:

    Terri,I love this poem, and all the complications it names. Feels right to me.Thank you for posting it, and blessings on you as you remember your mother this day.

  3. Jan says:

    I'm glad you printed out this poem; I had not read it before. I really like it. Love and prayers as you remember.

  4. Rev SS says:

    profound poem .. I too am printing it to re-read and ponder. Thx

  5. Doug says:

    'heavier than iron it was'carrying the burden without complaint.someday i'd like to hear how you got where you are today Mompriest…or perhaps i just need to read more 🙂

  6. RevDrKate says:

    The poem is breathtaking. As always, thank you for sharing…this and your journey.

  7. SingingOwl says:

    "It is not lack of lovenor lack of sorrow.But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry."Reading a mite late, but doing so I'm sitting at the keyboard crying. Strange, beautiful, profound, silly poem, and your mother who sounds like mine. A complicated relationship that many would never see because what they did see was the charming sweetness and warmth that she was. Sometimes. I loved her and I miss her a great deal, but…mourn the connection we just could not make. Too much strangeness. Wish we could chat and pray about it in person. (((Hug))) and sympathy and thoughts as you remember your mother.

  8. I'm so sorry about your mom, complications and all. My mother was quite complicated and died too young, too.

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