Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. She captures nature’s small, intimate happenings and lets herself—and the reader—be astonished over and over again by the mundane but glorious moments. I discovered her work several months ago and have been devouring the slim collections ever since. I try to read the books slowly, allowing myself no more than a poem or two a day because I don’t want to come to the end.
For the most part, her poems are uplifting, sometimes bringing me to tears with a surprising insight or perfectly captured observation about swallows, her dog Percy, an otter, an encounter with a buck. Today’s poems, though, were bleak, lamenting the encroachment of humanity on the natural world: gray foxes struck by cars, a dying river, a museum drawer full of extinct birds, polar bears struggling for survival. My tears at today’s poems were very different than my usual delighted, surprised tears.
You’ll notice I listed four poems for today, after previously stating I limit myself to one or two. That’s because I hoped to eradicate the sadness of the first poem by reading a more uplifting one. When the second poem was equally a downer, I read a third. After the fourth, I almost went back and read earlier poems in the collection, poems I knew were cheerier.
I stopped myself. Why was I so afraid of feeling sad? Why did I want to run from the images in today’s poems by superimposing something more sprightly over them? I forced myself to sit there, on the red leather loveseat by the sunny window that is my reading spot, and be sad. I didn’t dwell on the poem’s messages or rail inwardly about the damage humanity is doing to the environment. I just felt sad.
That was my act of courage for the day. I didn’t run from the uncomfortable emotion or try to work through it. I experienced it. When I was done, and had gone upstairs to work on my current novel, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was stunting my imagination and my experience of life by usually choosing to hurry through the difficult emotions, or avoid them altogether. How different might my writing be if I had the courage, routinely, to examine all my emotions and reactions, and not just the pretty ones, the happy ones, the ones that don’t sour my stomach or raise a lump in my throat?
I guess that’s partly what a year of living courageously will help me discover.