In today’s newsletter I answer a question sent to me by one of you––A Things That Don’t Suck reader! One of the benefits of being a premium subscriber is that you can ask me questions directly that I may use to inform my next writings. Thanks to all of you who have sent questions already, thus inspiring hours and hours of creativity for me.
Q: I HAVE A FRIEND WHO HAS BEEN GOING THROUGH A ROUGH YEAR. IS THERE A POEM YOU RECOMMEND SHARING, ONE THAT HAS HELPED YOU THROUGH HARD TIMES?
A: Dear Fantastic Friend,
Thank you for your question! There are so many poems I return to over and over, so it’s difficult to pick just one. But the writer I visit most often is Mary Oliver. She was the first poet whose work made me consistently feel, “Reading this will shift the course of my entire life.” Two decades ago, when I was first coming out at a conservative Catholic college, Mary’s poem “The Journey” was my very best friend. The poem was a loud advocate to remind me that being my full-self and loving who I loved would only ever be an addition to the world, and never a subtraction. During the hardest mile of that time, I carried a handwritten transcript of the poem around in my pocket and pulled it out whenever my faith in my internal guiding system started to wane. In the middle of the piece Mary writes, “little by little, as you left their voice behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” I don’t want to spoil the ending so I’ll stop there, but when you read it, I hope you begin to recognize the compass of your own voice and heart, just like I did that year.
In addition to “The Journey”, there is another poem of Mary Oliver’s that has probably been the most impactful piece of art in my life. It’s a short poem so I’ll share it all:
THE USES OF SORROW
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Isn’t it fantastic? A few years ago, I gave my partner a canvas I painted with the words “THIS, TOO” and we hung it in our home during a time when beauty felt harder than usual to find. Now, throughout my recent diagnosis, I whisper those two words to myself in the more challenging moments as a reminder to go searching for the light even cancer may be opening the blinds to let in. (And there has been so much light, but that is for another post, soon to come.)
The message of Mary’s poem has found a home in many of my own poems, and is a lot of the reason I began writing odes to the suckiest aspects of my life. And let me be clear––I’m not suggesting I wouldn’t happily do away with much of the grief in my life if I could. I’d slingshot it into oblivion. But no one lives a life free of the hard stuff––those midnight phone calls that turn all of our worlds upside down. Since the pain is inevitable, I try to stand guard over my own attention, wishing to learn as much as I can from whatever challenging experiences come my way.
I hope you and your friend find some comfort in one or both of Mary’s poems. Your question reminded me of why I’m so madly in love with poetry. Thank you so very much for that gift.
Love, Andrea 🖤