On Loving and Letting Go

pond in autumn

Spiritual Sunday

Today I am attending the memorial service of my Aunt Betsy Conant, who died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, and I will be reading a Mary Oliver poem. As I have noted in previous posts on Oliver, she is an intensely spiritual poet and her poems are often shaped by the narrative of despair saved by grace. Even though she is never overtly religious, she frequently resorts to religious language.

“In Blackwater Woods,” the poem I have selected, has a striking image of autumn trees as “pillars of light,” reminiscent of the pillar of fire that led Moses and the Israelites into unknown territory. In this case, the unknown territory is death, and Oliver imagines crossing a “black river of loss whose other side is salvation.” What this salvation consists of, Oliver acknowledges,  “none of us will ever know.”

It is because we don’t know that we must live fully in this world, with its “rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment.” Sounding strangely definitive after just having admitted her ignorance, Oliver gives us three rules for life. The last of these rules is what our memorial service is for: we loved Betsy dearly, loved her as though our own life depended on it, but now the time has come for us to let her go.

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars

of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfillment,


the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders

of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is

nameless now.

Every year


I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

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  • Barbara

    What a wonderful image Robin. And what a wonderful woman. Your Aunt Betsy must have been. When I read the phrase about the trees turning into pillars of light, I was reminded of this story from the desert fathers,

    Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

    Another image of the unknown salvation that awaits. Blessings! Barbara

  • Robin Bates

    Whenever I cite one of these poems, Barbara, you always find more Biblical and other associations. I absolutely LOVE the one you’ve found here

    I know that you told me once that you, an economist, had a disappointing experience in your college English class. This sharing of associations and using them to arrive at profound poetic meanings is what a good English class is about. You are helping turning this blog into such a class.

  • sue

    I always like your comments, and this story from the desert fathers is one of my favorite. What an appropriate pairing with the Oliver poem. To become pillars of fire we have to be passionate, and then to let ourselves be burned out – I suppose the ultimate letting go…

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