What is the Mary Oliver Challenge?

For this year’s Passover seder, my daughter brought a packet of poems that she related to the themes of the holiday. One of those poems, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” grabbed hold of my imagination and would not let go.

Throughout the spring, I returned to the poem again and again. It seemed to offer a glimpse of what freedom and redemption could really feel like — a vision that I find both tantalizing and terrifying.

You do not have to be good.

What?! Of course I have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Hmmm. I do have to trek through the desert, or at least through the wilderness. For the past three years, since my father died, I have been struggling through the rugged terrain of my own psyche: the barren deserts, the forbidding forests, the mountains that I have to either climb, hand over hand, or tunnel beneath. Occasionally there’s an oasis, a clearing, a breathtaking waterfall or a heartbreakingly beautiful rainbow. But overall, it’s been an arduous trek, and one that I make by necessity, because my father’s death shattered the psychological place where I used to live. That world, and the person I used to be, no longer exist.

So I do have to walk through the desert, but I don’t have to walk on my knees. I don’t have to make my journey more strenuous for the sake of penitence and self-correction. I don’t have to — but that’s what I do. Could I really free myself from that self-imposed servitude?

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

This is the refrain I keep coming back to: I only have to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. That’s all? That’s harder than the first two, harder than anything.

It sounds so appealing, so cozy, like a kitten cuddling in your lap or a dog snoozing gently in the sun. Soft, warm, relaxed, loving what you love, not thinking about anything else.

But what if my soft animal is too soft — too lazy, self-indulgent, self-centered? What if I don’t want to do anything else but lie in the sun? Or what if that animal turns out to be not a docile pet, but a wild animal: aggressive, ruthless, tearing apart the people and the life I love?

Throughout the spring, I struggled to explain to family and friends why I was so struck by this poem, and so stuck on it. I struggled to explain what the soft animal represents, why the notion of letting it love what it loves was so alluring and yet so frightening.

“What does it mean to you?” my therapist asked (one of her favorite questions). Then she nailed it: “It means being yourself.”

That’s exactly right. Letting my soft animal love what it loves means being myself. I do not have to be good all the time. I do not have to walk on my knees. But I do have to find the courage to let other people see me as I really am. And I have to discover for myself who I really am — including the parts I have worked hardest to disguise and ignore.

For 30 years, I did my best to ignore the nagging feeling that I am not good enough. At anything. Ever. In every area of my life that mattered to me, personally and professionally, I fell short of my own expectations. As a spouse and a parent, a daughter and a sibling, a friend and a neighbor: not good enough. My work: not good enough. Physically: not fit enough. Intellectually: not educated enough. Whatever I set out to do, I felt that I should do it better and more.

For years, I submerged these feelings beneath activities designed to make me feel “good enough.” If I pushed myself just a little bit harder, maybe my accomplishments would compensate for my gaping flaws, or at least cover them up. The strategy was partly successful — until my father’s sudden death. Then, I found myself overwhelmed by shock, grief, and this not-good-enough feeling that I could no longer avoid. In the language of the Passover story, this is my Egypt, my land of captivity.

So I’m working to let these feelings surface, to face them head-on, and to find a way through them — through the desert — to the Promised Land of self-acceptance. My father, of blessed memory, was one of the very few people I know who truly, genuinely felt good about himself. He didn’t think he was better than other people. But he thought he was good enough. What better memorial could I establish than to find that same inner peace?

And so was born the idea of the Mary Oliver Challenge: a commitment to letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves. A commitment to figuring out what I want, untangling it from what I think I should want and should do.

I hadn’t been excited about my job in a while. The horizon was distinctly lacking in exciting prospects. But when my incredibly supportive husband suggested that I take some time off, I rejected the idea. I need structure, I told him. I would set wonderful, self-nurturing goals (Go to yoga class every day! Explore my family history! Get back in shape!), fail to accomplish them, and feel worse than ever, I told him.

Then I thought: what if my goal was not to set goals? What if my plan was not to make plans? I might want to do those things eventually. But at the outset, what if I just try to do what I want? Try to discover what I want and how to pursue it even when it scares me, even when my reach exceeds my grasp? What if I accept that this challenge will necessarily involve wasting time — time when I want to be writing a blog post or an essay, or restarting my running practice, but when instead I distract myself from that intensity and my fear of failure by playing solitaire or poking around Facebook? What if I accept that inevitability as part of the process rather than considering it a failure?

I started writing this post in May. It’s now the end of June. I spent most of that time not working on it at all, and the rest tinkering with the few sentences I had already written. Like Penelope in The Odyssey, weaving and unweaving the same piece of fabric, I hoped to postpone the moment of completion and its accompanying moment of decision: do I want to hit “publish” and hang my linens out for the world to see?

I am determined not to let this blog become a “should,” so it might end up as the world’s shortest-lived project. But at this moment, the answer is “yes.”

Wild Geese
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.

* Mary Oliver does not endorse this blog, which she has probably never heard of.

6 thoughts on “What is the Mary Oliver Challenge?

  1. Forgive the intrusion, I was looking tonight for the full verse from Mary Oliver about “despair, yours, and I will show you mine,” and Google brought me here. You express yourself beautifully. I look at the date, and I hope that life is better for you now. Peace be with you. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Hello Carole, I found you (like the commenter above) through a Google search about “soft animal of your body”. You sound so much like me, and your writing is beautiful. I hope you are well, and the soft animal of your body loves what it loves today. ~Kimberly


    1. Kimberly, thank you so much for these kind words. With each passing year it becomes easier for me to follow Mary Oliver’s advice. I hope you are well, and thank you again for your comment.


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