Thank you, Mary Oliver

I am so thankful for the life and work of Mary Oliver and so sad to learn that she died on Thursday. Her poem, “The Journey” is the first thing I posted on this blog twelve years ago. Just yesterday, in an accidental feat of perfect timing, I published it again as the centerpiece of a meditation on becoming a person. The person I am becoming continues to be shaped by Oliver’s work; “The Journey” and so many others. With deepest gratitude for her peaceful and powerful impact on my life, I have republished below a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

flying_canada_geese

Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

“No, my name is David.”

A knock at the door yesterday. I was upstairs and my wife was on the phone so we ignored it. But with a quick glance my wife noticed that the woman left a note for us.

I retrieved the note, a request on the back of her business card to “Please call me.” On the front of the card: Child Welfare Services, County of San Diego. Confused and curious, I walked out to the street to see if she was still nearby and, sure enough, I saw a woman driving out of our neighborhood.

I flashed the card as she passed by, taking a chance that it was her. She stopped right away, got out of the car and came over to talk with me.

With no introduction and no buildup she simply stated that “There has been a complaint about the welfare of your children. I cannot tell you who filed the complaint but the nature of it is that your home is not well-kept and that your children are often left home without supervision.”

You could have pushed me over with a feather.

I said, “That’s impossible…this must be a joke.”

But you know what I was really thinking?

“Yeah, this summer we’ve let the house get away from us a little bit. Those piles we need to sort through are still there. That garage clean-up is never ending. At least the dishes are done…that much I know.”

And then, this:

“Well, sure…don’t most people leave their teenage kids home alone? At least once in a while? Yes, they are young teenagers but they are more than mature enough to hang out for a few hours on their own.”

And then, this:

“Who in the world said this about us? Who would possibly think that about us? I can think of three families right now whose homes are kept in worse shape than ours.”

All in about three seconds.

And she said, “I know this can be very hard to hear. And I’m not overly concerned at this point but it is something I needed to follow-up on.”

I said, “No, really….this is a mistake. Are you sure you have the right house?”

And she confirmed the address. Our address.

And then she added, “And you are Steve?”

“No, my name is David.”

“Oh. This happens sometimes. I’m sorry about that. Do you know a ‘Steve’ in this neighborhood?”

I said, “I’m not thinking straight right now. Please give me a second.”

My heart was racing. My mind was racing. I was overwhelmed by the suggestion that the assertion was real and that it was made by someone who knew us.

But why would I even for a second doubt what I know to be true? How could I entertain even the slightest impulse that our lifestyle and parenting choices had descended to the level of government intervention?

I guess it’s because we’ve worked hard to create a living/working/learning/playing environment that is loving, positive, productive and inviting. Every day? Of course not! Most days, most of the time. And I don’t want to lose even a tiny piece. I only want to make it stronger and any suggestion to the contrary, that I or we may fail to do so? Well, there’s some defensiveness in there…some perfectionism, too.

An awkward mistake turned into a good reminder. I have a wonderful marriage and a terrific family. We have our struggles, just like everyone else. In the grand scheme of things those struggles, those problems, are small…very small. And there are many around us whose problems are big and scary and that’s painful to realize. Humbling, too.

So, a little more empathy today and a lot more gratitude. Also, a renewed commitment to get that garage cleaned up before my mother calls in another complaint!


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.