Mary Oliver died just over a week ago, and it seems like as good a time as any to start a blog about the connective tissue binding us all together. Not a blog about the “banal idea of ‘oneness’,” as Rachel Syme puts it in the New Yorker– but, rather, about the “mutual acknolwedgment of pain.”
Of course interconnectedness is more than that, too, at least it is to me. It’s the pain that I share with Oliver – but it is also the common bond I have with her simply because she was here, because I am here, because for most of my life, until she died, we shared the same planet. In a manner of speaking, we still do; in her interview with Krista Tippett, she emphasizes the idea that matter does not dissipate: that we are neither made from nor become nothing after we are gone.
That is to say, the idea of oneness is hardly banal, even though I speak of it so earnestly. It’s a heavy, weighted thing; I belong here, in this world, because I am here. That is all – but that is also everything. It has cost me more than I can say to get to a place where I believe that I am not a solitary creature; at least, not really.
I was married for ten years; I’ve lived alone again for three. The first year after I separated from my ex, I had a cancer scare, which entailed solitary trips to the doctor, and mostly solitary tests. I was thankful to have a friend to list as my emergency contact; I felt bereft, nonetheless. But my sense of separateness did not begin with my divorce; it began when I hid outside, under the trees in my backyard as a child. I once wrote – to myself – that loneliness is being encased in skin. In a way, it began when I was born.
This separation is true, in many ways, for all of us; I don’t mean that I’m special or different. It is a cliché, and an annoying one, that we all die alone. There are new books on being alone (even when we don’t want to be); the UK has a Minister of Loneliness; there are hashtags drawing together those of us who have nowhere to go at the holidays (or who feel alienated from where we are). There are so terribly many of us, in our modern culture, who live alone, work alone, sleep alone. The flip side of a culture obsessed with individuality, innovation, newness, difference. We spend so much time trying to be distinct that we forget the ties that bind us. We spend so much time trying to be apart that we forget how to be together.
I chose the title Whale, Puppy, Tornado because these are a series of emojis I used for a while – I thought they were funny, all in a row. And I used them, in a way, to communicate a certain kind of togetherness to my friends, to my siblings: I delighted in knowing that they would know, seeing that combination, that the text was from me, even if they didn’t see my name. Whale, puppy, tornado became evidence of things unseen: connection forged from mutual understanding, kindred spirits, presence.
And, also, I thought: whale, puppy, tornado. It’s random, disparate. And yet – interconnected.
At the same time, I – and the poets I love most, Chaucer among them – am all too aware of how difficult it often is to bridge the gaps between people, between things. To believe in what you can’t see: that we’re not alone. That we have inner lives worthy of the universe – and that our inner lives are worthy simply because we are here.
Again and again, Chaucer’s poetry meditates on our desire to tell the world who we are, to pull back the veil, to expose our innards – and again and again, his poetry reveals what is only too true: we don’t do this very well. It is difficult enough to articulate my own thoughts to myself, let alone convey them in clear terms to someone else. Language is instrumental to human connection, and it is also, often, our downfall. Language can’t always bridge the gap between the seen and unseen, between what is outside and what is inside.
But language is not all there is. There are also: atoms, breath, sitting quietly, a smile. There are also: connections across history, time, and space. This blog will take up, variously, all of these ideas, and other ideas, too – the desire to be a part of something, the difficulty of achieving that.
But the necessity of trying, all the same.