Clam by Mary Oliver
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
And oh, you’re gonna lean on your friends, and oh, you did it again. That line’s been playing over and over in my mind as I find myself window shopping alone the other day. It’s from Lean by VHS Afternoon. There’s noise all around me as people do their last-minute gift hunting. There’s an overlap of Christmas songs from various shops trying to outdo one another. But that tune’s in my head, surprisingly. And what’s more, I am outside, walking and losing myself in the crowd, and not minding it one bit. For about half an hour I forgot about the weight of grief, I forgot about what I’ve lost, I forgot the little corners of myself that hurt.
I suppose I really did it again. Leaned on my friends, I mean. Leaned towards vulnerability. Leaned forward and kept moving, even if what I really wanted sometimes was to pull away from the light and refuse to open.
Today I am at my parents’ house and it’s been awhile since I’ve been here last. There’s a certain nostalgia at returning to the place where I grew up, but there’s also a threshold I’ve crossed somehow, and I knew the minute the front door opened that I’m only visiting. This is no longer my home—and can you believe the comfort that washed over me? It meant I’m free of this place, which have brought me so much pain and despair, and that I’ve made a home for myself away from here. Years ago I thought I’d never be able to leave and I thought that was the end. And yet. And yet.
Quite unintentionally, I am a buffoon, says another line in the song. A fool, a girl, a gullible dolt—things I used to call myself. I was in my twenties then and thought I’d never find answers, that it will only ever be question after question. How was I to know that sometimes it’s the asking that matters.
Quite intentionally, I’ve tried a few times to leave this earth. Last year around this time it was very difficult. I told myself: the days pass. The universe turns. What are we but specks of dust rotating with the axis. What else can I do but try very hard not to die this time.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. I am sending you so much love.
Each one is a small life, but sometimes long, if its
place in the universe is not found out. Like us, they
have a heart and a stomach; they know hunger, and
probably a little satisfaction too. Do not mock them
for their gentleness, they have a muscle that loves
being alive. They pull away from the light. They pull
down. They hold themselves together. They refuse to
But sometimes they lose their place and are tumbled
shoreward in a storm. Then they pant, they fill
with sand, they have no choice but must open the
smallest crack. Then the fire of the world touches
them. Perhaps, on such days, they too begin the
terrible effort of thinking, of wondering who, and
what, and why. If they can bury themselves again in
the sand they will. If not, they are sure to perish,
though not quickly. They also have resources beyond
the flesh; they also try very hard not to die.
This poem appeared in What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Da Capo Press, 2003. Shared here with profound gratitude.
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