Mary Oliver, Pain, Healing and Language

open window and curtain blowing
Nadia Colburn // May 2, 2019 // 4 Comments

I woke up this morning with an old, deep ache and pain.

Yesterday, I’d had a session with an energy healer. Some pain that was dislodged in the session must have come to the surface as I slept.

I know the pain goes back to being very young. It goes back to a time when I could not put to words what had happened. It goes back to my strong desire for my mother’s acknowledgment and comfort. Now as an adult I know how to put language to that pain. I also understand now the reasons why my mother couldn’t look at it and comfort me.

But understanding and feeling are different things. And the work of processing happens again and again in different forms.

There was still a level of deep feeling that I needed to bring out and feel in order to heal.

This healing takes place first beneath words and then in language. It takes place first beneath understanding and then through understanding. It takes place in and through body, and in the spirit.

I was going to write about something else today, but I thought I’d share this experience because I know we all carry old pain. I want to make space for that pain to reveal itself and transform. If we keep pain inside of us, if we think we’re alone with it and need to keep it secret, it solidifies and condenses and distorts. It comes out as anxiety or illness or violence or depression.

But if we make space for it, it can integrate and dissipate. Our pain can actually turn into mulch for our internal garden. It can open new spaces of insight and can also help us understand one another better.

This process takes time and is an iterative process. We heal and then go forward and grow and then come back for more healing. We expand around the pain. We get bigger and more spacious and more flexible so that we can hold more and heal more.

We do this work for ourselves so that we can help do it for others—for other people and for the world.

When narrative structures are too rigid to explain the complexities, we may turn to poetry. This morning, I wrote a poem, but it’s too new to share. So instead I’ll share a poem by a poet who has meant a lot to me, Mary Oliver.

In this poem, Oliver doesn’t tell us what her particular story is. But she doesn’t need to–her story is there. And by the end of the poem, we realize that our story is the place that we’re all starting from, however we try to swim into the future. Though each of our stories is unique, the poem also reminds us, our experiences as humans–and as animals–are shared.

Dogfish by Mary Oliver

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing kept flickering in with the tide and looking around. Black as a fisherman’s boot, with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin, which was rough as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know what a smile means, don’t you?

*

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted to leave it, like another country; I wanted my life to close, and open like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song where it falls down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer. Three small fish, I don’t know what they were, huddled in the highest ripples as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body one gesture, one black sleeve that could fit easily around the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted to be able to love. And we all know how that one goes, don’t we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don’t want to hear the story of my life, and anyway I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – a few people just trying, one way or another, to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind. And nobody, of course, is kind, or mean, for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to swim through the fires to stay in this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish better wake up and dash themselves away from the hopeless future that is bulging toward them.

*

And probably, if they don’t waste time looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Mary Oliver

 

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  1. Thank you for your beautiful description of pain and how it works. How it it is lodged in the body, and how it releases slowly, in different layers. I sometimes thing of it as puff pastry , all of these layers, but I like Mary Oliver’s way of looking , what a wonderful poem Mary has left us.

    1. Thank you Karalyn for your comment! I like that puff pastry image–to think of us, our physical and emotional bodies, as a baked creation 🙂
      xox

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