About The Mary Oliver Challenge

And so it came to be that at Passover 5775/2015, my elder daughter introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good,

the poem begins.

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.

These opening lines echoed, like a gong, deep in my imagination. Here were the fears and the hopes I had been wrestling with for several years, since an illness and then my father’s sudden death provoked a mid-life crisis of sorts.

Could it really be true that I am good enough as I am, without need for constant self-improvement or self-flagellation? Am I really capable of nurturing my soft animal and letting myself love what I love?

I decided to find out. Simultaneously worn down by continuing health problems and inspired by “Wild Geese,” I quit my magazine job and launched what I called “The Mary Oliver Challenge”—not just this blog, but my life project.

It’s a project of self-discovery, which sounds super-groovy but is actually super-scary.

“Letting my soft animal love what it loves means being myself,” I wrote in my initial blog post, where I explained The Mary Oliver Challenge more fully:

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.

That means letting go of expectations about what I should accomplish during this life phase. It means wrestling with my perfectionism and my yetzer hara, the inner critic who points out my every failing and invents flaws where they don’t exist. It means wasting time and recognizing that’s part of the process.

It means embracing yoga and meditation, prayer and Jewish study, coffee and conversation, as means to an end and as ends in themselves. It means embracing my diagnosis with a persistent tick-borne infection, some seven months into the challenge, as an answer to much of what has been wrong for the past three years—but an answer that brings many new questions, including whether and when I will be cured.

Like life itself, the Mary Oliver Challenge will always be a work in progress. The poem, and the challenge, are about self-acceptance, about feeling at home in your own skin:

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.