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Heavy by Mary Oliver


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.

Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
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
the laughter
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,
a love
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 OliverFind books by this poet • Or view my library 

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[expand title=”Dear Reader” tag=”h6″]

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Comments (8)

  • sunnyrap

    Happy birthday to you – thank you for your wonderful site. x

  • Billy

    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

  • Td

    Happy birthday, tender soul.

  • Corina Fortu

    Belated Happy Birthday!
    Grateful for your devotion here!

  • Avis

    Happy birthday and thank you for your site and your beautiful writing, which I just discovered recently (and now check every week)!

  • Mari

    Omg, T.

    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.

  • Steve W

    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’ Africa and that makes a difference. But the tears still flow.


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