Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Mary Oliver on applying for jobs

I spent Thursday afternoon stalking an internship description as if it were a crush on Facebook. I read it so many times that I had the desired qualifications memorized, and they started to feel not widely applicable but eerily personal. “I’m intellectually curious!” I thought. “I’m accurate!” I crafted my cover letter with great care, as if each line were a ballast against disappointment — and that’s when it hit me: I wanted it too badly.

“Loving anyone, or anything, opens you up to loss,” I wrote in my journal circa junior year, melodramatically devoting an entire page to this one-line realization. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking one, but don’t we spend our whole lives tiptoeing around it?

“I think I really like him,” a friend told me a few months ago, after spending the night with a guy she had just started dating. It had been a long time since she’d felt that way. “We kissed on the street in the morning while I waited for my Uber. But as soon as I got into the Uber, I started sobbing.” A moment later, she added, “That probably doesn’t make any sense.”

But it did.

Poets rarely counsel caution on matters of the heart. Mary Oliver is no exception. If she were a college stereotype (instead of an 81-year-old smoker who takes long walks through the sand pine scrub of Hobe Sound, Fla.), she would be the friend who responds to both your best and stupidest ideas by shouting, “Do it! What do you have to lose?”

I’m hesitant to write about her, because of all the poets whose words I have carried inside of me as inspiration and protection, she is the one who has mattered the most to me.

But I have to write about her, because this question I’m asking — how do we continue to care when hurt is just on the horizon? — roars through her poems.

In “West Wind #2,” Mary Oliver writes, “When you hear, a mile / away and still out of sight, the churn of the water / as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the / sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable / pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth / and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls / plunging and streaming — then row, row for your life / toward it.”

Those lines take the reader for a ride, especially the first time you read them. You’re clutching the oars, preparing to flee from danger, from the churning water and the sharp rocks, and then she upends you: “row for your life / toward it.”

Sometimes there isn’t energy for the battle. Sometimes I cancel Tinder dates because I’m consumed with dread. Sometimes the “unmistakable pounding” of the heart when you run into an ex-hookup at a party is a good reason to leave. But when it really matters, Mary Oliver believes — I want to believe it, too — you move toward what might hurt you.


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