I love how that image captures the uncharted nature of this psychological and spiritual journey that I call the Mary Oliver Challenge. Although the opening and closing lines of “Wild Geese” point to where I want to go, the poem is not exactly a map. It’s a field guide, an aid in identifying features of the terrain through which I’m traveling.
This post — and Mary Oliver’s recent passing — bring me to a pivotal line, a sudden shift in the terrain, from inner to outer:
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.
When I first read the poem, that line bristled with cold indifference, even reproach: You think your despair is the center of the universe, but the universe couldn’t care less.
With time and rereading, my view changed. There is indifference, for sure. But it’s not cold or warm, hostile or embracing.
The world goes on because that’s the nature of the world. That’s the nature of nature. It exists, independent of our despair and joy. And anytime I am able to step outside of my despair — or just step outside, taking my despair with me — the natural world is there, going about its timeless business. It may be indifferent, but it’s available.
The human world, too, is available. Over the past year, as my health and energy have improved, I have been more able to engage with people I care about, more able to step into the world-going-on and keep up for a bit before needing to let the soft animal of my body rest and recharge.
And so it happened that I barely paused to take in the news of Mary Oliver’s death. Two weeks later, I still haven’t read any of the obituaries or tributes. Meanwhile my world went on.
When the poet died, I was in California visiting my daughter. It was a busy week, a wonderful visit made immeasurably more wonderful by the simple fact that I was able to do it. I could travel 3,000 miles, get together with old friends and a new acquaintance made through my family history research, navigate Lyft and BART, recover from mistakes, rearrange my return trip at the last minute when bad weather canceled my flight home.
My world stayed busy. Getting home took two days of travel instead of one. (Bonus: an overnight visit with my sister, after I rerouted to Baltimore so that I could take the train home to Connecticut.) A few days later, we went to visit my other daughter, her wife, and their beautiful baby. At home, we’re in the midst of several major house projects (thanks, again, to my improved health and energy). Plus, it’s one of those stretches where the doctors’ visits and medical tests are piling up.
So. Mary Oliver, whose writing changed so many lives — including mine — is gone. Meanwhile the world goes on. My basement is now asbestos-free, and my grandson is already seven months old, and his mother’s elementary-school artwork, unearthed from the attic, is recycling-bound. Long ago, one of us couldn’t part with it; now I can’t remember who. The world goes on.
I cleared clutter from the attic because next week, solar installers will be working up there — one small step we’re taking to try to ensure that the world will go on after our time here on the planet.
Four Passovers ago, when my daughter introduced me to “Wild Geese,” she also brought a segment of another Mary Oliver poem, “Rain.”
The final section, “The Forest,” describes a snake shedding its skin, “rubbing roughly … to take off the old life.”
I don’t know
if he knows
what is happening.
I don’t know
if he knows
it will work.
The snake does know “these are the owl’s woods … the woods of death … the woods of hardship where you crawl and crawl.”
Yet he goes on.
At the back of the neck
the old skin splits.
The snake shivers
but does not hesitate.
He inches forward.
He begins to bleed through
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.