The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mary Oliver on How Differences Make Couples Stronger

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And yet the work of love too often leaves us feeling profoundly unprepared, nowhere more so than when lovers confront the abyss of daily differences between them. But rather than a fault line where the relationship fractures, that gulf can be the source of deeper communion — that’s what beloved poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) suggests in a portion of her wholly wonderful Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Reflecting on the enduring love she shared with her soul mate — the photographer Molly Malone Cook, for whom she later wrote one of the most moving elegies of all time — Oliver considers the gift of differences:

Mary Oliver (right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

M. and I have plagued each other with our differences for more than forty years. But it is also a tonic.


Along with the differences that abide in each of us, there is also in each of us the maverick, the darling stubborn one who won’t listen, who insists, who chooses preference or the spirited guess over yardsticks or even history. I suspect this maverick is somewhat what the soul is, or at least that the soul lives close by and companionably with its agitating and inquiring force. And of course all of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me? I bring home sassafras leaves and M. looks and admires. She tells me how it feels to float in the air above the town and the harbor, and my world is sweetened by her description of those blue miles. The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.

What, indeed, is love if not the enmeshing of separate excitements?

Complement the wholly soul-stretching Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on the mystery of the human psyche and how habit shapes our inner lives, with Shel Silverstein’s illustrated allegory of love as complementary difference and Oliver’s breathtaking reading of “Wild Geese,” her most widely beloved poem.

Published September 10, 2015




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