Meanwhile in Memoriam: Inspired by Mary Oliver and Her Poem Wild Geese

Gouache on paper

Day 219 and Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver taught me that to be natural was to be joyous and fragile, whimsical and strong, wild and tender.

Poetry, I have often thought, is a place, not a thing; an experience that moves past the written word and into us. Mary Oliver’s work translated the wilderness of not just the wild, but also of human nature from her words and into me. She translated her unbridled perceptions of the world into spaces between words so that young people such as myself could experience her perceptions and learn to find comfort in my own. 

Mary Oliver died last week. And when I learned she died I felt two distinct and differing feelings. The first was sadness, sadness at the loss of her continued perspective on the world. Sadness at realizing that I would never again read her words and know that she was breathing and living at that very moment. The second feeling was a melancholy sort of joy, joy that her spirit and thoughts and feelings were transmuted through her poetry, and therefore she was still here.

Mary Oliver taught me that to be natural was to be joyous and fragile, whimsical and strong, wild and tender. Her poem Wild Geese was one that morphed along with me as I grew, turning from a poem that made me think of great wheeling geese finding their way home in the sky, to a poem that spoke directly to my vulnerable insides and taught my adolescent self to be moved to tears by poetry.

And now, reflecting on Mary Oliver’s death, I am reminded of the courage it takes to live our lives and embrace our “place in the family of things.” So here’s to you Mary Oliver.

Take a second to read Wild Geese, or listen to Mary herself read it on Brain Pickings.

Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

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.

Want more Mary Oliver? Read and/or listen to the On Being podcast’s episode with Mary. If you too want a taste of the inner-workings of Mary’s mind, read her collection of essays Upstream, it changed my life, my perspective, my story.