Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes”

“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.” __Mary Oliver

I was caught by this one line in The Atlantic article, by poet and writer Mary Oliver, “Attention is the Beginning of Devotion“. In this world of myriad sensory inputs, attention to any particular thing is becoming nearly impossible. Apps, gadgets, screens, shows to binge and more; is there scope for attention, is there scope for devotion?.

If everything and everyone is calling out for our attention, then where should we expend our power of carefully thinking about, listening to or watching? Deciding where we spend our attention is the number one problem in this new world.

Attention: power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something __Merriam Webster Dictionary

Could we be turning into a species that will destroy itself because of attention deficit, one human at a time? How can we not have regrets at the end of our life if we never pursued anything all the way through, spreading our attention to a million things but not going in depth on any one thing, was this any different hundreds of years ago when there were fewer gadgets, screens and apps? I believe so. For example, in the 1400s people seem to have pursued one kind of work most of their life.

drawing from circa 1400, a servant tasting wines and food while king and bishops watch
drawing from circa 1400, people weighing coins from taxpayers

From the above drawings I observe a couple of things, people were doing things manually, there was little automation if any and hence working on one thing took a long time and needed manual attention. Second, people employed dedicated people for a job e.g. servants to test food. Imagine spending time to watch someone test your food before eating it and doing it for every meal. It tells me that there was a lot of time spent preparing and eating food just to stay alive, how much time would one have left to engage in other activities, not much.

Perhaps the question is not “Is it bad to be a polymath?”, in other words, is it wrong to try to do many things, but perhaps the real question is, would you be able to do many things and do them really well. If the answer is yes, by all means go ahead and do them. If not, stop everything but the most important one or two activities and follow them until done really well, then follow the next one or two.

Wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci a polymath? He studied art, architecture, science and technology in depth. I don’t know the answer to this question? Should one pursue one path all their life or explore many paths? May be it depends on what makes one happy when they look back at their life. That’s easy to say but hard in reality as one needs to either project themselves into their old age and do the things today that “might” make them happy later or simply look back at whatever they did and be happy without judgment.

Mary Oliver’s poem, When Death Comes, seems to suggest that it’s only in embracing everything that comes along in life with curiosity and amazement and not being set in becoming any one thing in particular, is the way to live life

“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.”

Mary Oliver

Decisiveness is crucial to moving forward with action whilst time shall pass and we will have nothing done when we look back. Even to take in everything with amazement as Mary Oliver calls out, one needs to make the decision to do so.

I am reminded of the “Don’t be a donkey” story that I heard Derek Sivers narrate. The story goes, a donkey is stuck in the middle of the road trying to decide to go left and drink water from a bucket or go right and eat the pile of hay. In trying to decide, the donkey wastes all his time and dies with hunger and thirst. If only he realized that he could have very well first had the hay and then drank the water or vice-versa, he would be alive and kicking!

Lessons From People No Smarter Than You

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use” __Steve Jobs

“When I started Chobani I’d never run a company before and there was no plan, but one thing I saw the could be fixed easily was the factory’s old walls. The badly needed a paint job. So I bought some paint and our first five employees and I all got to work. It was the first and the best decision I ever made.”


“Some of the most selfish people I’ve met are artists – I’m one of them – and some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met are in business, people like Warren Buffett.”


“When you ask, What do you want and what do you dream, you’re able to ask yourself, What am I beginning? We need to have a beginner’s mind to think about what is happening.”


“Information revolution is not just an extension of human capabilities but an extension of brain cells. This super-intelligence will bring about developments we’er never seen before and contribute to humanity”


“I’m very clear that everything I do is authentic, practiced and viable – and the end result is generally beautiful.”


“Health is your own; money belongs to others; power is temporary; and reputation is eternal”


“Investing in people is how we grow. I’m still trying to build the kind of company that my father never had a chance to work for;”


“There is a story I tell about the geologist who fell off a ten-story building. When he blew past the fifth floor he thought to himself, “So far so good.” That’s the way to approach life”


“On November 21, 1783 Benjamin Franklin watched as the first manned hot-air balloon rose from the ground. A skeptic in the crowd called out, “What is the use of it!” and Franklin is said to have replied, “What is he use of a new born child!”. He had a vision of humanity not as it is but as it could be”


“Today’s growing challenge: create meaningful lives for the world’s population. What are the jobs of the future in an age of robotics, driverless trucks and other new technologies”