I started reading poetry recently as a way of improving my creative language skills. There is a rhythm and lyricism to poems that I would like to transfer to my writing. What I’m finding is that a) poetry is damn hard and b) when done right, it manages to find the perfect words to reflect my thoughts.

One of my favorite discoveries has been the poetry of Mary Oliver. This is her poem, “Heavy”.

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?

— “Heavy” by Mary Oliver from Thirst.

Oliver wrote this poem after the death of her long-time partner, and while it’s about the pain of grief, it’s also a poem about resiliency. It’s about moving forward in spite of your pain and sadness.

“Heavy” doesn’t deny or dismiss the pain. Oliver says straight out that the pain of loss is like dying yourself. But, she reminds us, we will survive.

“I went closer and did not die,” she writes. “Have you heard the laughter that comes, now and again, out of my startled mouth.” This is her reminder that we don’t stop living when something bad happens. Rather, what happened, that is the pain from what happens, becomes a part of who we are.

For me, this poem applies to far more than death. Our lives are fraught with pain and disappointment. Our dreams don’t always come true. Or, they do come true, only to leave us disillusioned. We lose friends, we lose jobs, we lose control of the world around us. When these things happen, there is nothing wrong with feeling sad. Grieving is necessary.

But, I think it’s important to remember, especially now when there’s so much uncertainty and sadness in our lives, that even the darkest of nights will recede. That no matter what life throws at us, no matter how heavy a burden we are made to carry, we can and will survive.

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