Mary Oliver, Pain, Healing and Language 1

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.

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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

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?



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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