Friday, May 13, 2016

#SOL16: Be Curious, Be Attentive

Life Guard Chair (M.A. Reilly, 2015)


A friend sent me a link to an interview Maria Shriver did with poet, Mary Oliver back in 2011. When asked about how she was faring after the death of her long term partner, photographer Molly Malone Cook, Oliver replied:

Mary Oliver: I was very, very lonely.
Maria Shriver: You've written in your work that you rarely spent any time apart. How did you avoid being crushed by losing her? 
Mary Oliver: I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in 
the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that's what I did. I haven't locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself. It was a very steadfast, loving relationship, but often there is a dominant partner, and I was very quiet for 40 years, just happy doing my work. I'm different now.

Oliver says that 6 years after the death of Cook and I am heartened by her decision to live deliberately. These choices she highlights--to hide away or to make a life and unlock the doors--confront all of us who have lost their long term partner. And I suspect if I could talk with the poet, she might also say that although her decision to boldly live holds true, the inclination for more solitary acts also beckons after such loss. And perhaps it is this need for the solitary that led her to publish the book, Our World, a year after Cook's death. 


In Our World, Oliver compiles images Cook made, journal entries, and alongside these offers commentary--more prose poem than essay. What I find interesting is Oliver's observation,
"The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that person’s character shines or glooms."
It's her line about attention that interests me, stops me. When Rob was dying a friend, Monica sent me a message that simply read, Stay curious. At the time the two words baffled me. Rob was newly home from the hospital. After 50 days away from home, he had come home to die. For the 21 days Rob was home, Monica's two words stayed with me, kept me company as I would sit next to Rob, especially through the night. In some fundamental way, all I had was the decision to stay curious as I kept vigil while Rob restlessly slept. Staying curious was a way to make sense of what was happening and it led to an important way to connect with Rob and to calm the fear.

Oliver and Monica offer wise words. The end of death deserves our attention, our loving curiosity.

Be attentive. Stay curious.

During this time with Rob, I watched as he remembered he was dying. There's an appointment I need to keep, he'd tell me. He described dreams of travel gone wrong. He told me one morning that he couldn't figure out how to cross over--how to leave this world for the next. A few days before he died, in what would be one of our last conversations, he told me he had figured it out and that when it was my time to cross over, he'd be there to help me. He described the immense beauty of the next world. He referenced seeing my mom, his father, and a group of men all of whom were waiting for him. He spent hours, making what appeared to me to be imaginary things. His hands were busy adjusting levers. Engaging gears. Making screens to watch.  I'd like to think he was building what he most needed to transport him from here, from Dev and me to the next world. Throughout all of this, I talked with him, listened to him, loved him. And it was this attention, this curiosity that helped to bridge the increasing distance between Rob and me as he readied himself for his death and the next world.


My husband confronted death as he lived--full of courage, grace, and humility. I might have not witnessed that had I not been alongside him those last three weeks, attentive, loving, and so curious. I wanted, needed to know what he was seeing, hearing, learning.


  1. Morning Mary Ann, thanks for sharing Mary Oliver's way of handling the loss of her partner. I am starting to get comfortable with my own silence recently. I am too, struck by how we suffer loss universally even when our paths getting there have been so different. Tuvia went so fast. You had a very different opportunity to "be attentive, stay curious." One thing's for sure this daily blog writing is so powerful.
    Sunshine here. I'm sending you some of mine if you don't have any,

    1. Sunshine here too. Just finished meditating and now going for a walk. Different paths, yes. Grief, like love us a universal language.

  2. I think this attentiveness is a intrinsic and cultivated habit., Mary Ann. When you write of being " attentive, loving, and so curious. I wanted, needed to know what he was seeing, hearing, learning" , I am imagining that you and Rob lived this, too - that it was an everyday stance. As it must be for you and Devon now - being attentive and curious. in your love for each other

    1. We did live this way and I continue to do so. We were teachers for a long time.

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