A June of New, Dear Friends

I graduated college in May with a diploma in English and a big gaping hole in my life. What was I to do without my friends and my classes and my little routine? Or, should I say, my little life? The day after school ended, I did the only thing I knew to do: grabbed the nearest, epically-long novel I could find and dive right in.

I chose well. I chose a book that was unpleasant and electrifying and kept me coming back for more.  Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life and its cast of vivid and true characters filled the void for a bit. It became a chore reading it, especially once I saw the book for what it was–not the story of four graduates heading out into the world, as it begins, but the psychological portrait of a person deprived from love and exposed to absurdly gruesome horrors at far too young an age.


A good book stays with me. It blurs the lines between my life and its life. Every time I walk to work through the Garden district of Manhattan, I keep my eyes peeled for Caleb, tall, dark, and evil, whose apartment was in that area in the book.

But I finished it only a few days later. It turns out one mere novel wasn’t enough to satiate me! I needed more characters and buddies to populate my life for a bit. So, I went into an epically-long series: the mysterious and fantastic Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.


thousands of pages of goodness

If Yanagihara’s tome is about male friendships in the modern age, Elena Ferrante’s series is about the enduring power of a female friendship in a much different time and place than my own. Elena and Lila, the two protagonists of Ferrante’s series, become friends in Naples in the 1950s. The story ends in the 2000s, after Lila disappears, and she always threatens to do. Elena defines her own identity based off of who she perceives Lila to be. Essentially, whatever Lila is (bold, dynamic, impulsive, manipulative), Elena is not. However, as we’ll see, their relationship is ever-growing and while they know each other so well, sometimes Elena is so busy projecting her insecurities onto Lila that she doesn’t see Lila for who and what she is.

Sounds pretty much like a normal relationship, right? That’s because Ferrante’s books do something extraordinary, that so many novels fail to do–and why so many novels fail. They describe reality. Ferrante’s characters make real decisions. They do not make choices that an author thinks would be convenient for a plot. Rather, as I moved along the path of Elena’s life, all of her actions fell into place. They built up and up, and her decisions impacted her personality and her personality impacted her decisions. Life!

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. Elena Ferrante

I ended June with lots of new friends–and new friendships. There’s Jude and Willem, Elena and Lila. I graduated from college with so many good friends. I’m just starting out like the characters in A Little Life. But reading these books about enduring friendships, seeing them evolve over the decades, makes me excited to see how my own friendships will change in adult life. Is there anything more elastic, forgiving, and necessary than a relationship with a true friend?



Mary Oliver: A Wild and Precious Poet


the quote in question

People usually know Mary Oliver’s famous quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life” before they become acquainted with her poetry, or even the poem that it’s from. The quote is plastered on journals, tote bags, and probably tattooed on ribcages around the country. Oliver takes her pen off the page and looks straight at the reader when she asks that question. And really, what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Has there ever been a more serious and more urgent question?


The Pulitzer Prize winner herself

While I came to Oliver’s poetry through that quote, my love for her extends far beyond her sound-bites. She is a poet enamored with wonder and seeing the potential in every day.

In her imagistic poems, Oliver clearly uses nature as her canvas. Her poems usually describe an incident in nature–on object of study–and then end with a whammo-beautiful proclamation on life, the universe, and everything. She’s so good at crafting earnest words that the larger proclamations don’t seem contrived. In the poem Wild Geese, Oliver uses a squawking flight of geese to connect us all to the “everything” that surrounds us.

Or, sometimes, she describes nature just to relish in it. Take her poem August. Reading it is like taking a bite out of a succulent August day, the taste of which unexpectedly returns to you when you read the poem in December.

She also doesn’t underestimate the importance of the human body, or the vessel through which we experience the natural world. We can become one with the world through our body–and it’s not always about souls, goodness, our immortal spirits. Not that there’s anything wrong with John Donne but it’s nice to have a woman poet say yes, your body, it’s good, too.

The poem I’ve been thinking about a lot is “When Death Comes” because yes, it’s quotable, but also because it’s immensely brave.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

Maybe this is the most Oliver of them all. Using nature as a way to appreciate life, and finding wonder through natural surroundings. That’s the point of keeping your eyes wide open, of thrusting yourself into new experiences, of traveling. It’s a matter of staving away complacency. It’s a matter of being married to amazement, as she says. Oliver thinks that we become part of the world through finding connections with our surroundings, but for me, that idea can be extended beyond nature to connections with other human beings.

Another thing I particularly admire about Mary Oliver is that her poems are, well, palatable. They’re accessible on the first read, and just keep getting better. They’re the kinds of poems you’d want to send to your friend who doesn’t read poetry but needs to be lifted up, or the poems you’d send to your friend who does like poetry and wants a break from deciphering Auden. What I mean to say is that she is an utter delight–and that’s okay. Poetry doesn’t have to be an exercise in clenching your brain muscles and eking out meaning.