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Heavy by Mary Oliver

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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?

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This poem appeared in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2006. Shared here with profound gratitude.

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