You do not have to be good

In memory of poet Mary Oliver, who died one year ago today, I offer a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

flying_canada_geese

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.

“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.


Poem for a Sunday Morning

WEAN YOURSELF

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi


sunset field of grain

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The Consolation of Completion

I am a master of getting things done. Sometimes, it’s even stuff that has to do with my  growth, learning and development as a human being.

I am a master of knocking out the dishes, wiping the counters clean, spinning over to the couch to fold the laundry. I am a master of getting that laundry distributed and put away. I am a master at mowing, edging and weed pulling. I am a master at unpacking my bag after a trip, dirty clothes in the basket, clean clothes hung up or put away.

I am a master at doing all of the things that have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Checking those things off my list feels fantastic. It fills me with feelings of pride and the clear knowledge of having made a contribution to my household and family.

Every single one of those things is important. And every single one of those things is a convenient hiding place from the real work of becoming the better version of myself that I aspire to be.

That work cannot be charted on a task list but only on the pages of a much bigger book, messy scribbles writing a messy story, one that keeps inviting me back to make a bigger mess and to trust that the mess, the incompleteness is, in fact, the evidence of becoming.

Everything else is consolation.


fish eye photography of man holding gray cup

Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels.com

 

The Poetry of Management

As I set out to plan my Management 302 curriculum for the fall 2019 semester, I felt an urgency to treat the class as if it could as easily be taught in a humanities curriculum as in a business school.

Management 302 is a required course for all non-management majors. That is to say, it is the one opportunity in the undergraduate business curriculum for future accounting, finance, marketing and supply-chain professionals to engage exclusively with the subject of the human experience at work.

We look at individual motivation, personality and values. We explore team and relationship dynamics. We encounter leadership, emotional intelligence, culture and change. All of this in an effort to wake students up to the truth that the professional experience is only fractionally about one’s professional competency and much more broadly about one’s capacity for self-awareness, communication and adaptability.

You can imagine, then, why I always feel a sense of urgency in preparing for this class. Given a scant 2 hours a week over just 3 months to make the point, I have to be highly strategic in creating an experience that will outlive the classroom long into each student’s career.

Key to the effort this time around was my choice to operationalize my passion for poetry and use it to lead off each class session. I researched and selected a poem that was relevant to that week’s subject matter, recited it first thing and then asked the students to openly reflect on its application to our material.

I did not anticipate the usefulness of this approach, not only in helping us access the course material but in helping us to access a group-wide reservoir of empathy and insight. As poetry has the capacity to do, it changed the tone and depth of our conversations, it lifted my energy and purpose as an instructor and it still allowed us to maintain the necessary structure around what was still a discussion rooted in the needs of effective business operations.

Below is the poem I chose to kick-off the semester. Introducing the class overall and our initial subject of organizational effectiveness, my intent was to immediately jar my students from the comforts of the provable into the abstraction that is the primary reality of any human life.



The World I Live In
{Mary Oliver}

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.


statue angel cemetery

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

My Daily Bread, Part 2

“Your output depends on your input.”
{Austin Kleon}


While consuming my “daily bread” yesterday, those daily emails from writer’s whose perspectives I admire, I realized that I had not been as comprehensive as I had intended to be. I rectify that today by adding to the mix a couple of “weekly bread” resources who inspire me as well as some authors and poets whom I could not recommend more highly.

But first, a bit of context:

As I shared on New Year’s Day, I have been experiencing, struggling with and enjoying the fruits of a profound shift in my thinking and feeling about my work and my own very human experience. All of the resources I am sharing with you have been essential to the process of simplifying my understanding of who I am, what I care most about and what I am here to do, while also keeping me engaged in the very real work of living a life in the here and now.  

On a weekly basis there are two deeply meaningful and very different resources that come my way. On Friday’s, the author and creative force Austin Kleon publishes a list of “10 things I thought were worth sharing this week.” There is always something of value, something which opens up my own creativity and pushes my thinking in a new direction.

On Sunday mornings I receive Brain Pickings which the author, Maria Popova calls, “an inventory of the meaningful life.” These are deeply researched pieces, drawn from across the spectrum of human disciplines, on living with more intellectual, spiritual and creative intention and vitality.

I am biased in favor of the physical experience of reading a book. This past couple of years I have been encouraged and enlightened by the work of Terry Tempest Williams, Richard PowersCara Wall, and Frederick Buechner.

I have also been reading a lot more poetry, specifically the work of Seamus Heaney and Kay Ryan, not to mention my ongoing appreciation for the work of David Whyte whose writing first opened my eyes to the expansive frontier of my vocation.

These “inputs” have had everything to do with my “outputs,” whatever shape they have taken. I trust they will be of value to you. Happy reading.


sliced bread on white surface

Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on Pexels.com

A Clarity of Purpose

My thinking and, more importantly, my feeling about organizational leadership and change has evolved in powerful and unexpected ways since I began working in the field in 2001 and writing about it on a regular basis in 2007.

I have always attempted, if sometimes haltingly and ineffectively, to bring a humanistic and personal perspective to my writing and doing so is something I credit for deepening my personal awareness and broadening my global perspective.

As James Joyce said, “In the particular lies the universal.”

The past couple of years, and especially in 2019, something began to shift in how I express myself.

There is more poetry now, much more poetry. There are more images, especially of the natural world. There is a vivid realization that prose alone is an insufficient medium for expressing the massive complexity of these topics.

Today, I find that my heart is full of a clarity of purpose to continue this trend into the new year.

More learning from poetry, more learning from nature, and more trusting my intuitive impulse to reveal and express the personal and universal truths found within them.


dvzEdCEmSvOWPprXSG6jjg

Bend, Oregon – January 1, 2020

Poem for a Sunday Morning

Exploring
{Wendell Berry}

Always in the deep wood when you leave
Familiar ground and step off alone into a
New place there will be, along with feelings
Of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging
Of dread.  It is an ancient fear of the unknown
And it is your first bond with the wilderness
You are going into.

What you are doing is exploring.


gray stones and mountain

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com


A tug at the sleeve

It’s an idea, maybe just an impulse.

It’s many strands or pieces, disparate at first, less so as they converge.

It’s the maturation of a point of view, the solidification of a belief system, the coming into one’s own perspective.

It’s a persistent knocking, invitational in tone. It’s the other side of the door, the side you don’t yet see but are closer to discovering than ever before.

It’s the tug at the sleeve, the nudge, the shift, the lean forward, towards what has been taking shape behind the veil of a daily life.

It’s coming into focus. Not quite yet, but soon. And that’s ok because you’re not ready. Not quite.

But the tug is there, and you notice it. And noticing, for now, is enough.


landscape mountains sunset person

Photo by Josh Willink on Pexels.com

This is it

Every day – and I mean every day – I spend some time thinking about and feeling the emotions related to the following:

  1. Some event or person in my past that hurt me or that I perceive as having hurt me.
  2. Concern/anxiety about the future. Will there be enough? Will I be able to provide? Will I have the courage to do what I most want? Et cetera, ad nauseam.
  3. What I am doing right now that excites and energizes me, the contribution I am making, the purpose I am living into, the possibility I am fulfilling, the lives I am changing, starting with my own.

A good day is one in which numbers one and two are kept to a minimum and number three ascends with vigor. A bad day is when I let the past and/or the future determine the quality of the present. And, more importantly, my presence.

Replaying the difficulties of the past – especially by casting oneself as a victim of circumstance – as if doing so will yield a different outcome, only robs you of the opportunity to create something new in the present.

Anxiously anticipating the future – especially through some story about insufficiency or inadequacy – when all you can control is your own behavior, your own choices, is energy lost to fear of the unknown.

There is nothing you can do to change the past. There is nothing you can do to predict the future.

What you can do is decide in this moment, at this place and with these people, that you will become as clear as possible about these things:

  1. Who you are.
  2. Where you are going.
  3. The next step you will take.
  4. And, how much you are willing to love and serve the person in front of you right now.

IMG_3435

Are you better?

You’ve got another year of experience under your belt. Are you also another year better at what you do?

This is the question, the evaluation, that is so important at this time of year. Are you better than you were a year ago? If so, by how much? How do you know?

If your offerings can be evaluated purely by metrics, the assessment should be an easy one. (Of concern, however, is that if your offerings can be evaluated purely by metrics you will likely be replaced by a robot in the very near future.) If your offerings can be evaluated by less objective measures than you have a choice to make: will you ask those who pay for your offerings if, in fact, you offered those services more effectively this year than last?

It’s a straightforward, if fully loaded request:

  • What did you LOVE about what I provided to you this year? (Not like, but LOVE!)
  • What could I have done differently or better?
  • Would you recommend me to your closest friend?

If you don’t ask, you won’t know. And if you don’t know, you cannot accurately say that your additional year of experience is also an additional year of effectiveness.

Take heart! Getting better is a privilege set aside for the few who are willing to humbly acknowledge that there is always more to learn.


measurement-millimeter-centimeter-meter-162500.jpeg

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com