Some thoughts on Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

When I was in my twenties, the first line of this poem would have been the one that caught my attention:

“You do not have to be good”

Back then I spent time considering what was expected of me and which expectations I would frustrate. I knew I didn’t HAVE to be good. Goodness, if I could figure out what it was, had to be a choice or it wouldn’t be goodness.

And to think that I believed I’d shrugged off my Catholic education by then. How blind I was.

By my late thirties, when I had a few more bruises and scraped knuckles, I’d have been taken with:

“Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”

It wasn’t that I was into sharing. Far from it. Any despair I had was kept buried deep, slipping out only in the unconscious grinding of my teeth when I slept. It was more that I liked the “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”challenge. Back then, I was surrounded by people who believed in self-actualisation, new age thinking, and neurolinguistic programming. I didn’t. Still don’t. It tended to discourage sharing. I depressed people with all my negative energy and they tired me with all their wilfully blind optimism.

Now, in my sixties, with my bright future behind me, I’m drawn to two lines of the poem The first is:

“Meanwhile, the world goes on”

I had to gain a bit of mileage before I really understood that the world ALWAYS goes on. When you have the starring role in the movie of your own life, it’s easy to believe that your narrative is THE narrative. When you realise that that isn’t true, that you are the driftwood beached by the tide of life’s ocean, you have to readjust.

I came to understand that a corollary of “You do not have to be good” is that my life does not have a point. It’s neither a test to pass nor a quest to pursue. It’s just my life. I discussed this once at work, when we were building the strategy for another bright vision of another bright future, . One of my colleagues couldn’t cope with the idea. He was a psssionate, driven man with a talent for selling things. He asked, “If your life doesn’t have a point, how do you get up in the morning? How do you keep on living?”. The best response i could offer at the time was, “It’s better than the alternative.”

Which brings me to the second line in this poem that calls to me today:

“the world offers itself to your imagination”

This, I think, gives shape to the readjustment I’ve been making over the past few years. It recognises that the world goes on, that I do not power it or direct it, and then invites me to imagine my place in that world.

I like the idea that I can use my imagination to let my soft animal body love what it loves. That, if I focus on the world and not on me, then, like the wild geese, I will find the place where I’m most at home.

It may not be true, but it’s worth finding out.

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