Reflections on Sea Changes

Thoughts on transformation
by Lauralee Alben

Loving the mystery: Mary Oliver’s legacy

I’ve been reflecting deeply on Mary Oliver’s love and mastery of the art of questioning — everything.

In this 2001 interview of her by Coleman Barks, they both intentionally invoke the intimate, numinous space of not knowing.

Coleman Barks: “…her text is full of huge, imponderable, unanswerable questions like, What am I supposed to do?…I love those questions that she fills her poems with and they leave me opened and empty and pleased to have no answers. Is that the way you want it?”

Mary Oliver: “That’s absolutely the way I want it…. So many of us live most of our lives seeking the answerable and somehow demeaning or bypassing those things that can’t be answered and therefore denuding one’s life of the acceptance of mystery and the pleasure of mystery and the willingness to live with mystery is greatly what I think about. And if I could do something for people I would say, don’t forget the mystery. Love the mystery.”

In the most intimate moments of invoking that mystery, I have read aloud “The Summer Day” to someone poised to design their Life Intention, a question big enough to live with their entire lives. Especially poignant are these lines:

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

I’d like to write that Mary Oliver died too soon, but even though so many of us would like her to live forever, to go on marveling and questioning, we know it’s her poems that are immortal. Besides, she’s left us a map of sorts. All we have to do is go for a walk in nature where the sacred is waiting to inscribe our own hearts with “such wild love,” just as it did hers.

What a well-designed life Mary Oliver lived. She embodied the transformative state of being that I call “design consciousness.” By channeling together her experiences with nature, spirit, humanity, and time into one ecstatic verse after another, meaning flowed into us and around us. Offered up in sweet meanders and surging swells, the wisdom she gleaned from the mystery is ours for the taking. We simply have to ask.

In Sea Change Design, questions are elemental, omnipresent, and irresistible. Because every transformation begins with an intention, which always begins with an inquiry.

In coaching sessions, in college classrooms, in corporate workshops, in interactive keynotes, it’s always the same. No matter what kind of intention is being designed, or what change is deeply desired, when I speak that poem’s riveting last line, there comes the almost inaudible intake of breath, that pause when everything is possible, if only we are willing to ponder Mary Oliver’s extraordinary question,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

In her poem, “Mysteries, Yes” Mary Oliver writes:

“Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”

Beloved Mary Oliver, what a beautiful blessing you bequeath us. May you revel in the mystery of eternity. Know that your legacy of words and wonder will continue to amaze us. Spring will be here soon, and we will learn to appreciate, like you and the black bear touching the grass, “There is only one question; how to love this world.”

My head is bowed.


Listening to the World,” Krista Tippet’s OnBeing interview of Mary Oliver is a keeper. As is The New Yorker article by Ruth Franklin, “What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand.” And then there’s Brain Pickings by Maria Popova: “The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life.”

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