Driving up the California coast to Point Reyes Station is one of my favorite things to do. I wander around, eat pizza, and occasionally buy expensive local tea or candles. I always stop in the little bookstore and poke around, because poking around tiny book shops in tiny towns is one of the great joys in life.
A few weeks ago, I was in the bookstore, post pizza and post glass of cabernet, and one of Mary Oliver’s books caught my eye.
She had passed away a short time before and I honestly didn’t realize how much of an impact her words and life had on people until everyone on my social media feed started posthumously quoting her.
I went to Barnard in the late ‘90s, conveniently coinciding with Mary Oliver’s tenure there. When President Obama spoke at Barnard’s graduation in 2012, I suspect my mom deeply regretted having me twelve years too early, but such things are generally beyond our control.
My own regrets surrounding my college years are fairly sparse. I only have two real disappointments and, weirdly, neither of them have anything to do with not going on a single date. I was a late bloomer in every respect and was too busy trying to navigate Manhattan as an empath who was still thirteen years away from learning what an empath was. Dating was simply beyond me and that was fine.
Instead, my two keen regrets were, and remain to this day:
Not accepting that Rolling Stone internship because I was too worried about money.
Being too chicken to apply for Mary Oliver’s small fiction-writing seminar.
I did take one of her big lecture classes, one you just had to sign up for before it filled. I don’t remember what the class was on - of the Virginia Woolf oeuvre probably - but I do remember writing a paper that had something to do with cherries. I was wildly proud of it until the mark I got didn’t reflect my excitement surrounding my cherry-driven conclusions.
To be fair, writing fiction scares me to this day. I don’t want anything bad to ever happen to anyone, much less people I’ve invented and so I control their fate and why would you do that to someone? But fiction where nothing bad happens tends to be deeply dull and no one wants to read deeply dull fiction.
Also, maybe I’m bad at it. I don’t like being bad at things.
But, god, what a waste. Can you imagine being one of seven or so students who got to work on their writing with Mary Oliver? Neither can I, because I was too paralyzed to grab the opportunity when it was offered to me.
All this flickered through my slightly cabernet-hazed brain as I stared at her book propped up on a table twenty years later.
Gazing at her book, brain softened from the wine, Mary Oliver popped in and said, “I can work with you now.”
Started, I looked around as if someone was standing next to me, but of course no one was. Thanks to my years of flirting with the unverifiable or maybe the wine, I didn’t immediately dismiss it.
One of my talents is jumping through dimensions, peering through veils, being a cosmic conduit, generally engaging with things that aren’t part of most people’s everyday reality.
But I rarely talk to dead people.
My father pops in every so often. My ex’s mother poked me pretty insistently a few months ago when she wanted to talk to him. (Luckily, this was less uncomfortable than it sounds, but there’s no way to text “Your dead mom wants to talk to you” to a former love without a little awkwardness creeping in.)
So when I heard the ghost of Mary Oliver offer to work with me on my writing, I did some checking - is this really her, are you sure this is a thing we can do - but I was basically on board.
When I did the double check on her identity, she just waited calmly for me to catch up.
When I asked “can we really work together” - tinged with the unworthiness that has colored most of the interactions in my life (sigh) - she replied:
“You have the potential. The potential.”
It was that slight emphasis on the second potential that sold me.
My own guidance knows how easily convinced I am that my work isn’t worth anything and I shouldn’t bother, so it rarely allows in any doubt, because it doesn’t want me to lose another year, five years, another decade. (Whoops.)
But this calm yet firm “You have the potential, but will you truly meet it?” just felt like her, even though how would I know? But it certainly wasn’t me or the energies I’m used to communicating with.
Maybe it was the glass of wine. That’s still an argument that can be made. But I prefer not to make it. I prefer to deepen into the trust I’ve spent years building around what I receive from the untouchable ether. Because all arguments of real or not-real aside, that’s simply more fun.
If the ghost of Mary Oliver is ready to help me with my writing, I’m ready to take it. Show me how, Mary Oliver. Show me what we can do together.
“You’ll listen better now than you would have before,” she says. Which is also true.
Strangely, I’m far less intimidated by the ghost of Mary Oliver than I would have been by Mary Oliver in the flesh. It feels easier to connect, like she understands my own specific human frailty and will be kind about it, without putting up with it for long.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been better with the ethereal beings than with the real humans.
But maybe it’s also because this is what’s happening now, and we can only ever dance with what’s in front of us. Maybe this is also reminding me that it’s never too late. That maybe if we miss an opportunity at one point in our lives, that opportunity will circle back around twenty years later, when we’re finally ready for it.
There’s a lot of hope in that, and I feel like Mary Oliver wants to help us all lean into the hope and the possibilities that are here for us in this great, wide world.