Perhaps books are my ‘Wild Geese’? Some thoughts on a poem by Mary Oliver

Have you ever tried to walk a Labrador rapidly, in a straight line, when its nose is catching new scents that its paws are already trying to follow and its tale is announcing that these are going to be the very best scents it has ever smelled? It’s a pointless waste of energy. Let go of the leash. Make the dog happy. Your day will be all the better for it.

Today, my imagination was my Labrador, scenting for something new. It found a thriller, called ‘The Flight’ by Julie Clark which made its nose twitch in anticipation of excitement and surprise and it dove in. It didn’t get far. Not even as far as the start of the story. Because just after the this-is-going-to-be-good dedication, which read:

Dedicated to all the women who have come forward with their stories. Whether it be in front of a congressional panel on live television or alone in a windowless human tesources office – we hear you. We believe you.’

was a quotation, which read:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Mary Oliver – Wild Geese

And suddenly my Labrador imagination had left ‘The Flight’ behind and was off to find out who Mary Oliver was and what the rest of the poem said.

So I didn’t get to hear the opening chapters of ‘The Flight’ this afternoon but I’m glad I let my Labrador off the leash because I found this poem:

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 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.

This poem resonated with me.

At sixty-five, with more life behind me than I have ahead, I’m very much aware both that there are things worth despairing about (boy do I have a list) and that, regardless of my despair, in fact, completely indifferent to it, the world moves on.

I’ve long rejected any instinct to walk on my knees to make up for the things I’ve done or failed to do. The past is beyond my reach. All I have is today and however many tomorrows may come my way.

So what do I do with them? What are they for, those days?

It may be self-serving but I like Mary Oliver’s advice that

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

Unlike Mary Oliver, it’s not the steady pulse of nature that wakes me in the morning. I need something different than the call of the wild geese to lose myself in the world. I went back to the lines:

‘the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -‘

and realised that books are my wild geese. The voices of all those writers, taking flight and calling to me to join them are what bring me peace.

So, now I’ve established that, I can say ‘Thank you, Mary Oliver’ and return to the twists and thrills of ‘The Flight’. If you think you’d like to join me, try out the audiobook sample below.

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