How my Husband’s Death on 9/11 Improved my Life

This past weekend, I was honored to speak at Seattle University for their Search for Meaning Book Fair. One of the highlights was to see Mary Oliver read a bunch of her poems. I have been a huge fan of Mary Oliver for quite some time. She writes of animals and nature and spirituality in a way that combines them into one entity, always with a tiny unexpected twist, her wry sense of humor nipping you at the ankles just as you’re about to take your leave. She talked of her “Percy poems,” those written about a beloved dog, no longer of this world, but very much still part of Mary’s consciousness. She spoke of flying home on Sunday in time to see the Superbowl which cracked everyone up to her apparent bewilderment. She is a wry one.

When asked her instructions for living a full life, she responded with her usual refrain: “Pay attention, be astonished and tell about it”

Oddly enough, the homework that I gave my grief and loss class this week, the class I teach at The Recovery Cafe was to “pay attention” by taking a shape or color walk where you choose a shape or a color to look for as you walk.

I entitled my talk “How my Husband’s Death on 9/11 Improved my Life.” My mother, now living in BC, drove down to see me speak and was horrified, certain I would have a lynch-mob for an audience. But this was a spiritual book fair. I knew it would be understood, just as any widow(er) would understand. We understand that guilt we feel when the scab of grief has withered and fallen off, leaving that pink new skin underneath and we realize the richness of our new lives.

Reborn. Risen from the ashes. Alive.

A read of my preface, the part of my book that explains Alchemy as a spiritual journey of sorts, just as the grief journey is a spiritual one settled even those of my audience that were looking uncomfortable. There was more black widow humour and good questions. I sold a few books. People came up to me afterwards thanking me for my words, my honesty, authenticity, vulnerability – the traits that combined to constitute my audacious title.

The next day there was a fundraiser for the girls in Rwanda. A larger audience than last year. A new group of kids infused with emotion, empathy, a need to make a difference. They are the generation that will change the world. They already are. Everyone in that room was most definitely “astonished.”

My mom left with a new sense of our lives.

A new and “improved” lives of giving back and sharing our stories. Our life of “paying attention, being astonished and telling about it.”



Something came up
out of the dark.
It wasn’t anything I had ever seen before.
It wasn’t an animal
or a flower,
unless it was both.
Something came up out of the water,
a head the size of a cat
but muddy and without ears.
I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.
But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.
melancholy leaves me breathless…
Water from the heavens! Electricity from the source!
Both of them mad to create something!
The lighting brighter than any flower.
The thunder without a drowsy bone in its body.
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything.
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.
God, rest in  my heart
and fortify me,
take away my hunger for answers,
let the hours play upon my body
like the hands of my beloved.
Let the cathead appear again-
the smallest of your mysteries,
some wild cousin of my own blood probably-
some cousin of my own wild blood probably,
in the black dinner-bowl of the pond.
Death waits for me, I know it, around
one corner or another.
This doesn’t amuse me.
Neither does it frighten me.
After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.
It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.
I walked slowly, and listened
to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

– Mary Oliver

Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008)


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1 Comment

  1. Kristine February 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Abby, I think I need this poem on my wall. It speaks to me. Thank you for including it in this post, which is illuminating, as always.

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