First published on Karen Cushman’s blog post “What’s New?” in response to the following question: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing, troubling times?”
What ‘s the Point?
Mary Oliver: I also believed and still believe, with more alarm as the years go by, that we are destroying the Earth.
Krista Tippett: And you don’t write about that.
Mary Oliver: No. Simply that I think you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. And there are some poets who pound on that theme until you really can’t take any more. And I think that my way of doing it, saying this is what we have, let’s keep it, because it’s beautiful and wonderful and wondrous might work better. Though probably it’s not going to work either. We’re in deep trouble with the environment I believe. And nobody’s going to stop this business of … of business, of making money, the amassing of things that will vanish for us as we vanish. I’ll leave a few poems behind . . . but not much cash.
Unedited interview, On Being, October 15, 2015
So . . . Mary Oliver, from whom so many of us draw hope for our precious, struggling world, for our precious, struggling lives, despairs, too. How painful to hear!
And yet when I listened to that interview I only nodded and thought, Of course. That’s the way it is, isn’t it? We despair and, at the same time, we write about wonders.
Because what is the point of writing anything else? The wondrous, after all, still exists. The wondrous in the natural world that surrounds us, the wondrous in human relationships, the wondrous that flows from the human mind . . . art, science, even technology. All worthy of honor.
I feel a powerful aversion to the message I’ve heard too often handed to young people, “We adults have failed. The world is yours now. Fix it!”
If I were young today I can’t imagine much that would fill me with more disdain . . . or more anger.
So I have recently spent intensive months first researching then writing and rewriting and rewriting a picture book text called EarthSong. I don’t say one word in it about our collapsing climate. I only celebrate. A hymn, not a sermon. My theory is that if I can fill a young child—and perhaps that young child’s caretaker, too—with wonder at our Earth, they will be more ready to take care than if I preach the fire and brimstone I can too easily see gathering at our feet.
And if, as I suspect, taking care in our individual lives is no longer enough to make a difference, then at least my words will bring my readers to the kind of deep appreciation that can change us today.
Of course, climate chaos isn’t the only threat I, and many others, see gathering around us. We stand on the brink of war, war we can no longer simply export to other lands and pretend is not ours. Our own society is collapsing under the burden of inequality, of a neglected infrastructure, of short-sighted and greedy economic policies. Politics—all of it, not just the too-easy-to-name newcomers—has become a travesty, focused on power rather than the common good.
There are days when my most optimistic thought is that I’m old. If I’m lucky, I will come in nature’s unerring way to that final exit before the collapse.
But then I have grandchildren.
I have grandchildren.
And young readers.
And the only answer I can find when I speak to them is to combine honesty with a deep honoring of the good, of the beautiful, of the holy.
Because it isn’t just that “you catch more flies with honey.” That’s true, of course. But what’s even more true is that we need, all of us, young and old, to live in that good, beautiful, holy place. Otherwise, what is the point?
And if we need to live in it, then I need to write in it, too.