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The On Being Project

Loving the World Means Paying Attention to Its Simple Gifts

This Mary Oliver gem may be the finest poem about spring — and how we live our lives — I’ve ever read. There are no cardinals or crocuses here. Only a black bear awakening from hibernation, coming down the mountain, showing her “perfect love” by doing what bears do.

“There is only one question,” says Mary Oliver: “how to love this world.” You’ll find your own answer to the poet’s question, your own sense of meaning in her words.

For me, the poem opens into mystery. How could it not, since it’s about the “dazzling darkness” that’s forever coming down the mountain toward us?

But this much seems clear. Loving the world means paying attention to its simple gifts, and receiving them with simple gratitude in every moment of our waking lives.

by Mary Oliver

   a black bear
      has just risen from sleep
         and is staring

down the mountain.
   All night
      in the brisk and shallow restlessness
         of early spring

I think of her,
   her four black fists
      flicking the gravel,
         her tongue

like a red fire
   touching the grass,
      the cold water.
         There is only one question:

how to love this world.
   I think of her
         like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
   the silence
      of the trees.
         Whatever else

my life is
   with its poems
      and its music
         and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
      down the mountain,
         breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
   her white teeth,
      her wordlessness,
         her perfect love.

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