Heavy by Mary Oliver
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
It is four in the morning and I am thirty-five today. Has it really been that long? How have I arrived here without dying?
Most of my days in the past year have been filled with troubling things, and kind things, yet sometimes they have the same face. I often stumbled around in the dark then trying to identify which is which, the tips of my fingers tracing contours: this one brought me pain, and this one, and this one. This one brought me grace, and this one, and this one. Was it really a face or a flower shedding petals?
The Balanescu Quartet’s Waltz is playing on repeat. I used to think of this as my birth song. I probably still do. Or maybe a song that gave birth to versions of myself. The one who didn’t want to live. The one who refused to die. Imagine me waltzing. A most difficult dance to master.
Nine years ago I was thinking about taking my own life until someone threw poetry at me like an anchor, which it was. Year after year I ride the wave of blackness and cling to poems as if they were the only thing that will save me, and they did.
S. is in the hospital. Two weeks ago we were eating cake. Three nights ago her mother died. Two nights ago we had to call an ambulance. Last night her husband said, I need your prayers. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, trying not to rehearse for grief. The only prayers I know are poems. And perhaps a litany of please please please please please.
Happy birthday, beautiful, he says. I know he believes it. You’re not allowed to be sad today, he says. I know he means it. You deserve to feel wanted, he says. Something good, I think. I must’ve done something good in my past life to have this.
These days my evenings blur into my mornings. I’m sat all night at my desk working for hours on end, trying to make ends meet, telling myself if I do this one thing, then I can do this other thing, and another, and another. Just pushing myself forward. Spending hours.
Of course I am astonished. Perhaps the poems weren’t the only thing keeping me from drowning. When I sit outside to watch the sunrise, when a laugh bubbles out of my lungs, when I cling to the hope that my friend will come home, when I sit barefoot listening to music while I write, when I am shy to want kisses but I ask for them anyway—
Happy birthday, T., you old delirious fool. Sixteen years ago we started this place. Perhaps we save ourselves.
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had his hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it–
books, bricks, grief–
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?
[expand title=”Endnotes” tag=”h6″ expanded=”true”]
This poem appeared in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2006. Shared here with profound gratitude.
Read more works by Mary Oliver • Find books by this poet • Or view my library
Explore poems in pursuit of: gratitude • resilience • nature • Or browse the index
[expand title=”Dear Reader” tag=”h6″]
This little corner of the world is my passion project since 2005. My commitment is that it will always remain free to all. If this place holds meaning for you, would you consider supporting it? This can be in the form of a cup of coffee (+ other ways).
Note that Read A Little Poetry may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through any links on this site. It is at no additional cost to you and helps in the upkeep of this space.
Thank you for being here all these years—and into the future—as I hold poets to the light.
Happy birthday to you – thank you for your wonderful site. x
Happy, happy birthday……a poem for you……
B (if I should have a daughter)
By Sarah Kay
If I should have a daughter, instead of mom, she’s going to call me Point B,
because that way she knows that no matter what happens,
at least she can always find her way to me.
And I am going to paint the Solar Systems on the backs of her hands,
so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say ‘Oh, I know that like the back of my hand’
And she’s going to learn that this life will hit you,
in the face,
wait for you to get back up, just so it can kick you in the stomach
but getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.
There is hurt, fear that cannot be fixed by band aids or poetry
so the first time she realizes that Wonder Woman isn’t coming
I’ll make sure she knows she does not have to wear the cape all by herself
because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers,
your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal.
Believe me, I’ve tried
And baby, I’ll tell her, don’t keep your nose up in the air like that
I know that trick, I’ve done it a million times
You’re just smelling for smoke so you can follow the trail
back to a burning house so you can find the boy who lost everything in the fire
to see if you can save him.
Or else find the boy who lit the fire in the first place to see if you can change him
But I know she will anyway, so instead, I’ll always keep an extra supply of chocolate
and rainboots nearby.
Because there is no heartbreak that chocolate can’t fix.
Ok, there’s a few heartbreaks that chocolate can’t fix,
but that’s what the rainboots are for because rain will
wash away everything if you let it.
I want her to look at the world through the underside of a glass bottomed boat
To look through a microscope at the galaxies that exist on the pinpoint of a human mind
Because that’s the way my mom taught me.
That there’ll be days like this
that there’s be days like this my mama said
When you open your hands to catch, and wind up with only blisters and bruises.
When you step out of the phone booth and try to fly
And the very people you want to save are the ones standing on your cape
When your boots will fill with rain and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment
and those are the very days you have all the more reason to say thank you
because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop
kissing the shoreline no matter how many times it is sent away.
You will put the win in winsome … lose some
You will put the star in starting over and over.
And no matter how many landmines erupt in a minute
be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life.
And yes, on a scale from one to overtrusting, I am pretty damn naive.
But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar.
It can crumble so easily.
But don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.
Baby, I’ll tell her, remember your mama is a worrier
and your papa is a warrior.
And you’re the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more.
Remember that good things come in threes and so do bad things and
always apologize when you’ve done something wrong
but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining,
your voice is small but don’t ever stop singing.
And when they finally hand you a heartache,
when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street corners
of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that
really ought to meet your mother.
Happy Birthday T-your site means a great deal to me, since I found you in 2012 xxx
Happy birthday, tender soul.
Belated Happy Birthday!
Grateful for your devotion here!
Happy birthday and thank you for your site and your beautiful writing, which I just discovered recently (and now check every week)!
You gave me some life with this post. Especially mentioned The Balanescu Quartet’s Waltz.
Hope you had a happy birthday.
Thank you for existing.
Thanks for your post T.
Today would have been my wife’s 59th birthday. She took her life 18months ago and I wish she had read “Heavy”
My loss and that of my daughter is indescribably heavy today but there is lightness in remembering and seeking the small kindnesses, like the wind through the tall grass and the late afternoon sun spotlighting each individual type.. I’m.in Africa and that makes a difference. But the tears still flow.