how to complicate even the life of a lily

Posted by on April 5, 2011


by Mary Oliver

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face

of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself

even in those feathery fields?
When van Gogh
preached to the poor
of course he wanted to save someone–

most of all himself.
He wasn’t a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas

it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in the world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river,

where the ravishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues–
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.

* * *

All the time I think about moving toward a simpler life. Then, a simple task comes up like shopping for new and much-needed warm-weather pajamas for my girls, and before I know it I have complicated the task to a dizzying extent. First I will look at the rack of the consignment store. I can’t bring myself to settle for something pilled or adorned with snowflakes out of season. So I take the time at Target to shift through whatever cheaply made Tinker Bell crap is hanging on the racks of the girls clothing section and still can’t commit–partially on the grounds of aesthetics and partially on the grounds of principle. Oh yes, I have many ideas which are going to save others and myself and, conveniently, take me a lifetime to solve. Finally I will turn to the sale section on the Land’s End or Sierra Trading Post websites, seeking something that isn’t florescent, with peace symbols, or made from fabric that feels as if it will shrivel at first contact with a dryer, and remotely affordable on a student budget. Four or five online stores later, I decide that my very soul is flagging from time spent on an unsatisfactory quest for something that is not of ultimate importance in the long run.

Then, quicker than lightening, it occurs to me to check out to see if there are any coupon codes for free shipping at the sites I’ve visited. Surely this will help me arrive at something. The chalky, swirly, pajama-shopping equation on the blackboard of my mind must elongate and take on a dragon-like life of its own before it finally spits out a solution. Then I enter in our billing and shipping information, feeling little satisfaction and wondering faintly if I will only grow to resent these cute pajamas on the first day that they get dragged out of the closet, along with a dozen other things, and left on the floor of the living room, by my girls, playing dress-up, as I think: “They have too much; we have too much. For all of my talk of a student’s budget, our lives are beset with too many nice things, a thousand overly nice and unnecessary things, which I resent having to constantly gather and regather and wash and dry and fold and put away.” It doesn’t help that I just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible, in which, the five year-old girl in the American missionary family observes something like: “Everyone here [in the remote Congolese village] has just one clothes.”

This is a dramatization. And yet it is one that embarrasses me because it is also, well, true. But I have to believe I am not entirely alone in my periodic stumbling into the miasma of choice in a choice-galore land. I don’t even really care that much about which pajamas I ultimately grab from the drawer and dunk over the heads of my girls at bedtime, as long as they are clean and will keep them from the extremes of hot or cold during the night, but somehow the process begins with a perceived need, and then it goes from there, taking on exaggerated proportions. “For all her household is clothed with scarlet.” I couldn’t be more invested if I were shopping for my own tombstone. And maybe, if I’m being honest, I like getting sucked in for the numbing, time-killing benefits it provides. Maybe I should just put Jeff in charge of the girls clothes. He would never, ever waste so much time, and would probably buy the Tinker Bell on the spot. Then the girls would be happier, and I would be free.

I don’t think this is what the Mary Oliver poem is about, exactly. It is about desire in general. I hardly think the warm-breasted hummingbird, desire of the lily, is an analogy for internet shopping. But I can relate in general to a somewhat cynical view that would say: sure, I could become a lily of the field, and still find a way to complicate my career as lily with some preoccupation or another–ranging from the most noble of yearnings to the most base. That’s all I’m saying. Lord, have mercy.

Posted in: Poetry Wednesday
  1. Manuela
    April 6, 2011

    I love this poem and your insights.
    I can relate.
    THanks for this read on a most chaotic, busy and, oh, not very simple day.

  2. Molly Sabourin
    April 6, 2011

    I am reading your post while taking a break from cleaning out my closet – the closet I share with our board games, vacuum, weights, random computer cords, etc. We should rent a dumpster, I told Troy just this afternoon. We have too much JUNK. I am drowning in STUFF.

    All that to say, I thoroughly appreciated this reflection! I love you for making pajama buying a monumental quest (factoring in the ethical issues of such a purchase and all : ) ) . And the poem is fantastic. I really like Mary Oliver.

  3. Kris Livovich
    April 7, 2011

    This does make me happy that I am a rash decision maker. Much to my husband's dismay, I take two minutes, make my decision, buy the thing, and it's done. It drives him absolutely crazy. But that's a problem for another day.

  4. Kris Livovich
    April 7, 2011

    Also, funny you should mention having your husband buy the clothes. My brother-in-law does all the clothes shopping for his family – including for his wife (my sister). I believe she buys her own undergarments, but that's about it! Strange, but true.

  5. Emily Lorelli
    April 7, 2011

    Ah — the "perceived need" is the end of me too! I can totally relate to being sucked into the vortex of Target and online shopping in response to this perception, which is usually not related in any way to *actual* need. A beautiful poem that could be unpacked and studied – yes — but can also just be read and appreciated! Thank you!