To Love Living Things, and to Let Them Go
In her poem “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver concludes with 10 breathtaking lines: “To live in this world/ you must be able/ to do three things:/ to love what is mortal;/ to hold it/ against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;/ and, when the time comes to let it/ go,/ to let it go.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because I’m in a season of rebirth. Vegetables and flowers are beginning to bloom in my garden, which is so rewarding after a wet, cold, and barren winter here in Georgia. The sun is out, and the grass is turning green. I can feel myself unfurling and breathing deeply along with each fresh blade.
People now take longer walks (both with and without their dogs), so I’m able to sit in my front yard and share a few words with them. Being outdoors is a blessing for me, both physically and spiritually, and I am so glad to be able to escape into it once again — especially since working outdoors has so many health benefits for people with multiple sclerosis.
Things are changing inside my house as well. Four months ago, we lost our beloved cat Ivan, and we still find ourselves grieving in ways both large and small. It’s likely we’ll never really get over his passing; we’ll just find ways to live around it. However, our other cat isn’t exactly in love with our kids, and they really needed something to pet. So last weekend, we decided to go for it and adopted a pair of new cats!
The white one is named Nobu, after Nobu Shirase, the Japanese explorer who led his nation’s first expedition to Antarctica, and the little gray girl is named Jean, after — who else? — Jean Grey from “X-Men.” Life is different now that there are three cats and four humans living in the same house, and while there has been some hissing and spitting (and not all of it by the felines), we’re figuring it out a little more each day.
But here’s the thing. Eventually, I’m going to lose these two sweet babies the same way I did Ivan. And those garden beds filling up with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, okra, squash, and berries? When summer ends, after they’ve fruited and flowered, they’ll also wither and retreat into the earth, taking their brilliance and color with them.
That’s what makes all the living things I love so precious — their fragility and transience. I can’t hold on to them forever. Instead, I must follow Oliver’s sage advice: Love temporal things knowing my life depends on them, and then let those good things go when it’s time, no matter how much it hurts.
Loss is a lesson I’ve learned well as an MS patient. Over the last 17 years of living with my disease, grief has become a kind of intimate friend. And for that reason, I am better prepared to endure the hard times and to fully appreciate every good moment that comes before. “To live in this world,” as Oliver writes, I have to embrace both. Oh, may winter always make me grateful for spring and death leave me eager to embrace and value life.
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