I stumbled upon Mary Oliver when I was looking for an answer; an answer to pain and suffering. Let me clarify, I was at that time in the throes of writing a PhD, and also, in the midst of a break-up. Needless to say, I had ‘a lot on’. I never was one for poetry as a rule; I think I truanted that class at school, but on that day in the summer of 2012 I googled ‘good poetry’. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese popped up and I thought I would read it as it was an excuse to take my mind of the ardour of a PhD, and also a break from feeling guilty about the mistakes that I had made in the course of my failed relationship. For those of you that haven’t read it, it goes like this:
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.
The first line was the most important and the most gripping for me, it was a message that gave me permission to forgive myself… whether that was for not working 12 hours straight or not being the best partner I could have been. Indeed, this poem allowed me to forget the trivialities of life and love for a brief moment, as I am imagined the ‘wild geese harsh and exciting’ telling me that life shouldn’t be that stressful, and that you have but one. While Mary Oliver may not be an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich, her poem touched me on a profound level that I will remember for the rest of my life. Thus, my students, and also my friends, know that when life gets hard I can always be relied upon to tell them the story of the Wild Geese high up in the air ‘announcing THEIR place in the family of things’.