for the love of lowly things (for Mary) - Ruminate Magazine

for the love of lowly things (for Mary)

December 15, 2020


When I have to die, I would like to die
on a day of rain
long rain, slow rain, the kind you think will never end.

And I would like to have whatever little ceremony there might be
take place while the rain is shoveled and shoveled out of the sky,

and anyone who comes must travel, slowly and with though, as around the edges of the great swamp.

—Mary Oliver, “Morengo”


Mary Oliver dies on a Thursday. I don’t hear about it until the evening, sitting on my bed under the lamplight as cars flicker past. Every so often, the window sills rattle, a horn honks, the distant boom of a train like that of from an ancient throat: calling, mourning. Over the past year, I have been setting up an altar on the side of my room that gets the most sun, with incense and candles, photos of my grandparents, cloth bags of gifted medicine, a ribbon from last year’s Women’s Memorial March. I don’t honour Mary at the altar though. I go downstairs instead, listen to recordings of her reading poems, and make dumplings, tucking meat into dough with flour-crusted fingers, cold holy ground linoleum under bare feet. My hands fall into a rhythm, reminiscent of playing scales on the piano with my eyes closed, back when I practiced religiously. I’m surrounded by the thick, briny smells of garlic and soy sauce and mushrooms, invoking my grandmothers’ intuition when I approximate ratios, twist the wrapping, trust my gut. So this is how you pray.

Although I was never the most devout reader of Mary Oliver, I knew her work well enough to mourn her, to recall the way some poems snag you with their fishhook beauty and won’t let you go until you have reckoned with them. Perhaps most of all, the sacred imperative to give your whole self to a place and time—the endless and proper work of paying attention.

I often ask myself, how will we pay attention? Here, for us city-dwellers, amidst concrete and sirens, never-ending noise? Now, amidst the clamour of constant crisis, the thrashing open-wound violence that capitalism, colonialism and other beasts of empire have wrought on the most vulnerable among us? With too much to see, sustained stillness seems an impossible discipline. How do we attune our gaze to that which brings life?

On the recording, Mary’s voice is leathery with age, warm and generous and crackling with laughter. “What I find beautiful,” she says, “is that what you are—the particles that make up you—will eventually make up something else. To me, that’s a miracle. There is never nothing.”


In December, it is the season of Advent in the church calendar, and in the sanctuary, large-scale artwork of a pregnant belly adorns the stage. I wonder at the quiet fury and joy of Mary, her declaration in the Magnificat that God has “filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.” All the ways she still defies domestication: the Black Madonna, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, speaking Nahuatl, brown-skinned, subaltern, subtext, survivor. In the Biblical story, both Mary and her dear friend Elizabeth will bear sons, and both sons will die by state-sanctioned execution. In the Biblical story, Mary and Joseph flee their ancestral homelands from the possibility of child apprehension and genocide dictated by a tyrant on the throne. How will we pay attention to these echoes: the grieving mothers, the migrant exodus, the barbed wire nativity?


I’ve always loved the verse in Genesis about God hovering over the waters, gliding over the deep like some great winged creature: a feathered bird, or a dragon, maybe, dancing like Lunar New Year childhoods and splitting the sky with colour and drum beats. But maybe God hovering above the water is more condensation than cacophony—a shape-shifting, a blurring of boundaries, a cloud of mist. God distinguishable from the water below only by movement, by a state of change.

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza names this hovering space between/amidst Deep and Divine as neplanta, a Nahuatl term connoting “in between,” “borderlands,” or a reference to the space of “the middle,” employed in postcolonial and queer scholarship. In their words: “God is most present in the spaces, gaps, and fissures that exist, those in/between spaces where we locate the processes of becoming, and perhaps even the processes of becoming divine.” [1]

Blessed then is Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tonantzin taking on a new name and infiltrating (that is, being and becoming) the canon so she can be worshipped safely, still, on Tepeyac. [2]

Blessed then are those without binary, without citizenship; blessed are the border-crossers and the gender transgressors and the code-switchers, blessed are the water protectors whose sacred songs pry open the country’s armour to reveal its naked, festering heart. How now will we pay attention?


In December, the government of Canada expands an injunction on Wet’suwet’en territory, where the TransCanada corporation wants to ram a pipeline through Indigenous land. Unist’ot’en Camp, a peaceful re-occupation of traditional territory, has been conducting healing work for Indigenous people affected by intergenerational trauma, connecting them to the land and to cultural medicine and to one another. The militarized police move in with automatic weapons. They arrest unarmed women and Elders. They take over Gidimt’en checkpoint and cut communications and supplies to the Healing Centre. There has never been any consent from the Wet’suwet’en for access to their lands. Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson, says “I am not a criminal for protecting my most critical infrastructure which is my berries, my medicine, my water, my right to teach future Unist’ot’en generations how to live in right relationship with the land. Without water, no human will survive.” Do we hear her? How will we pay attention?

In December, the rain seems endless, pushing into every pore, the wet seeping into window sills and clouding bathroom walls. It was just last Spring when we were stamping in the rain and chanting on the mountaintop against the twinning of the TransMountain (then, the Kinder Morgan) pipeline. Boots soaked, blood singing and throats sore. The water protectors taught us songs and the songs grew wings, turned to clouds, grew bigger than the beasts of empire. I tied a palm-frond cross and joss paper to the gates and waited for the water to fill me. So this is how you pray.


At a workshop on trauma and resilience, I learn that tears actually change your bodily composition and remove toxins from your brain. Crying is, at its most fundamental of levels, a healing act. Water, pulling poison from inside us like strings on a bow, O elemental and jagged music. It’s the same week I learn about how lifelong lovers Mary Oliver and Molly Cook first meet in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house, the instant recognition of that first gaze—a frisson of Deep and Divine, two particles colliding, forever entangled, immediately changed.

In quantum mechanics, the simple act of observing a particle can change its state. Our noticing as living beings—this profound mystery of attention—has meant we are “participants in the evolution of the Universe since its very beginning.” [3]

For us crying creatures, soft and made of two thirds water, it is both duty and discipline to attend to all creation. All living things, especially the lowly, the in-between, those on the wrong side of the tracks, or border, or wall. The land and the water and the salmon and the sea. The sheen of frost, the neighbours swearing at the rain, the creep of evening light up the homeless shelter next door, Love All scrawled on the wall in blue sharpie. In the end, the bright green blades rupture the sidewalk, a miracle, or magic. In the end, there is no absence, only transformation. How will you mourn, here, now? How will you pay attention?


When I was younger, I would dream about flying, like my grandmother did before me: soaring upwards into atmosphere, over cities and fields and trees older than mountain ranges. I dream of a flight I could not control as much as delight in, condensing from ground to abundant air, cloudmaking, joybreaking. Have you too dreamed of bursting from earth to sky, your body both water and weightless? Have you, like Mary, found this is your place in the family of things - not sunken into non-being after all, but noticing, loud as the geese and the drummers and all your singing arteries, and so too remaking the world?


How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.

the slick mountains of love break
over us.

—Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”




More about Unist’ot’en:

The recording of Mary Oliver reading poems and being interviewed by Krista Tippet:








Céline Chuang (she/her) is a diasporic settler from Treaty 7 territory, with a familial migration story that crosses water four times in three generations. She writes, organizes, gardens, and creates on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver, Canada). Twitter: @celinechuang




"for the love of lowly things (for Mary)" was originally published in The Waking on February 21, 2019.   




Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash

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