I remember my first crush.
I was in the sixth grade, scanning the shelves at the county library wondering where I could find poetry.
had never written poetry. I had once written in my fourth grade class
that I would never be a poet. "I prefer stories," I said to my teacher
who encouraged creative writing. I had a strange, vivid, but fragmented
imagination. I wrote short, bizarrely humorous stories about my family
(my sister as an alien, mailing my sister to Cuba, various interactions
with my father who was easily made into a caricature in my youthful
illustrations). I also enjoyed our daily oral language exercises which
included making simple plain statements into eloquently described
scenes. "Charles sat in the chair," became
Charles slowly reclined into his overstuffed red leather chair as his
beloved servant Aaron served him tea and stoked the fire."
I found within me an urge to write poetry. I didn't understand it. I
thought it was an inferior art form to story-crafting. But the truth
was, while my fragmented imagination could create powerful or humorous
scenarios, I couldn't write the novels I devoured so eagerly.
And there was that pesky urge.
hated asking people for help, but I was at a loss. I couldn't wrap my
mind around the Dewey Decimal System. I had no idea where to start.
was a slim, middle-aged man with long salt and pepper hair and trendy
eyeglasses sitting at the reference desk. I managed to squeak out,
"I want to read poetry."
He looked up from his computer and smiled brightly.
"Do you know what kind?"
"Well, what do you like?"
I thought for a moment.
"Trees. I like the woods."
smiled knowingly (I had no idea what it was he knew) and led me to the
stacks. He pulled off books, one by one, and handed them to me.
"Her name's Mary Oliver. She writes about nature."
I smiled shyly and held the load of books in my small arms awkwardly.
read Mary Oliver and fell in love. Lines like, "All the darkness ever
wanted was to become light," or "If the world was only pain and logic,
who would want it?" spoke to me deeply, though I didn't understand why.
became older, and went to her poetry occasionally, but not the way I
did when I was a preteen. I didn't see the salt and pepper haired man at
the library anymore. I think I asked about him once and was told that
he went to another branch. I found many of the library reference workers
fascinating, but especially him. Perhaps because he didn't brush a
child off as merely a child. He treated me with respect and it changed
When I struggled with my faith, Oliver's line from "Singapore" (the pain and logic line) kept me from Atheism.
This Christmas my fiance's family purchased Oliver's Thirst as
a present. Oliver has been compared to Thoreau in her love of nature
and the fulfilled life. In 2005, her partner of several decades, Molly
Malone Cook, passed away. Her death devastated Oliver, who went on a
spiritual pilgrimage that influence Thirst.
It's filled with Christian imagery, theology, and truth. I suppose some
would question whether a lesbian could communicate any truth about God,
but I have yet to renounce many of my struggles but I hope God
continues to work through me.
A recent poem of Oliver's (I don't believe it's included in Thirst,
but is in some other work), spoke to me so much in a Barnes and Noble
cafe that I had to buy a journal so I could have a paper to write it on.
It explain my life as this moment. My desire to love more, to leave the
past behind in a dramatic way, to look for an easier world.
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 sharp nails.
And you know
What a smile means
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 a song where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
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,
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,
Mostly, I wanted to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
for a simple reason.
And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that it
bulging toward them.
if they don't waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
Eight years later, a simple gesture from one man is still affecting me. And so is Mary Oliver.