Mary had a little identity crisis

Worm memories

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I will spend the rest of the year trying and failing to be Mary Oliver. 

The statement above is currently sitting at No. 3 on my list of 2020 predictions. I actually have it written down in my Notes app, preceded only by “I will watch two blockbuster films and get a concerning text message on the same day” and “I will lose at Yahtzee.” 

But back to Mary Oliver, the great American poet. I’ve had a growing premonition that she will play an important role in the upcoming months because this year, more so than any other, is supposed to be my year for writing. I told myself that in 2020 I would stop being afraid to create, that I would be brave — if not bold — with everything I throw onto the page and that I would finally, truly find myself through art.    

Pretty unrealistic for an 11-month period, if you ask me. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was “Leaves of Grass.” Still, I can only hope that I’ll at least start this explorative process, even if I won’t be able to finish it by the end of the year — or the end of the decade. I may be in for the long haul on this one. 

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m going on some grand adventure, crafting a unique style or unearthing my own “voice.” With all due respect to middle school English teachers — and I really do respect them; some of my favorite people are middle school English teachers — I think the idea of every person having a distinct creative voice is dull and oversimplified. Art functions best as a collaboration, with individual people building off of a collective legacy.

Instead, when I say I want to find myself, I use “find” less in the sense of “discover” and more in the sense of “locate.” That’s what I’ve been chiefly concerned with, as I look ahead to the new year: I need to locate myself within art, figure out where I stand among the writers and poets who came before me. If all art is just a mix of preexisting bits and pieces, a fusion of older ideas, then what type of artist am I? Two parts Joan Didion, one part David Sedaris? Mostly Mark Twain, with a pinch of Oscar Wilde? A deluded 19-year-old comparing herself to geniuses? Most likely. 

Writing, to me, has been a never-ending search. It’s like shouting down a dark hallway just to see what echoes back, what voices have been conjured and what memories evoked. It’s the past and the present in constant conversation with one another. 

Mary Oliver was a master of that conversation. She died in January — a little more than a year ago, I’m realizing now, almost to the exact day that I’m writing this column. Something tells me that when she was alive, she wasn’t so obsessively concerned with who she sounded like or where she fit in history, or whether a reincarnated Shakespeare would personally approve of her writing. She was able to reach back even further, connecting not just with the people of old, but with the ancient planet itself.

“Maybe the idea of the world as flat isn’t a tribal memory or an archetypal memory,” she wrote, “but something far older — a fox memory, a worm memory, a moss memory. Memory of leaping or crawling or shrugging rootlet by rootlet forward, across the flatness of everything.” 

I could never write like that; it’s an impossible fantasy. I can never be Mary Oliver. If I tried to write about worms and their memories, it would probably sound like this: “Wowie woo, it’s dark! I have to pee.” It takes a rare type of sensitivity to understand the world in the way Oliver did, and I have always been too proud and standoffish to even come close. 

I’m starting to think that it doesn’t really matter what my writing is like. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good. Whatever I write, no matter how boring or uninspired, there’s always going to be a part of me that’s writing it for her. 

I’ll keep shouting into the dark, and hopefully I’ll learn to quiet the disappointment in my heart when she doesn’t answer back — because even if I can neither hear her nor write like her, she hasn’t disappeared. She will always be there, a little piece of her in every living creature walking the earth. Be it fox or worm or moss, her memory lives on. 

Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].