I feel like I am filling some big shoes up here. We have had so many wonderful service leaders this summer. Thank you, everyone who has taken on this responsibility for our Congregation. And thank you for allowing me to offer this service today. I am grateful to be here before you this morning to offer hope, consolation, depth, and humanity. These are the potentially life-saving or perhaps more accurately said, soul-saving gifts of great poems. I want to start off by reading one such poem that has served those two purposes in my life.
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.
I am not sure at what point in life I discovered nature’s capacity to astound, awe, comfort and console, but when I go back to the little river town I grew up in along the Ohio River in Indiana, it feels like our house and neighborhood are on the verge of being overtaken again by the wilderness.
I was still in elementary school when I started taking really long walks. The longer the walk, the closer I could get to country roads and wildness. In those days nature felt like the only thing big enough to hold all of the grandeur going on in my head, the hopeless idealism of youth and the excitement and thrill of discovery that comes so easily when the world is new to the senses.
Mary Oliver’s more grown-up approach to nature in her poetry, her ability to find awe and reverence and truth through observation, the fact that she knows “how to be idle and blessed” while feeding a grasshopper, reminds me that nature has been and will continue to be a container for the great swells of my humanity.
One of my lifelong best-friends introduced me to Mary Oliver through the poem “Wild Geese.” I still have the well-worn photocopy she gave me when we were in college. During my first few years as a middle school teacher, the poem resided on my bedside table and I read it like a prayer in an effort to cope with a career that did not suit me and a marriage that was doomed to fail. I hovered over the words: “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.” Those lines were such a relief to a falling away Catholic who felt like she was missing the mark constantly. Mary Oliver helped me be a little kinder to myself for not having it all figured out.
“Wild Geese” helped me remember that the world was calling to me “harsh and exciting” like a flock of geese flying overhead. I need only connect to the raw energy of wild landscapes to find consolation from the tangles of my very human existence.
Mary Oliver’s poems remind us all that when life doesn’t make sense, when life doesn’t turn out like it’s supposed to turn out, when we are so tangled up and can’t see or hear the answers we need, we can seek out the wild places. We can remember that underneath our sophisticated humanness we are still just like the animals we share the world with seeking shelter, food, warmth, and companionship. It’s that simple. And there’s compassion in that, for ourselves and for each other. It’s about being enough. We are enough just because we exist.
Returning from a Mary Oliver poem, or the walk that her poem might inspire us to take, we might find nothing in our lives altered. The problems are still there. The world still is what it is. The difference is an internal shift. We connect to something a little more primal, instinctive, less in our head. We have our feet more solidly on the ground. It might be possible to be a little easier on ourselves and everyone else who seems to be letting us down or antagonizing us.
Sometimes we need a break from the fires of our commitments, our passions, our careers, whatever it might be that has us spinning our wheels. Some cold, cold waters thrown on the burning coals of our goals, and conundrums, that’s what a poem, a Mary Oliver poem, or the walk inspired by a Mary Oliver poem can do. Replete with natural imagery, yet devoid of sentimentality or romanticism, Mary Oliver’s poetry is an invitation to connect with the world around us that exists in spite of human endeavor and is in fact indifferent to it. She evokes the humbling power of landscapes and other creatures of the earth to put our humanity in perspective, to realize that nature, though we may collectively have the power to alter and maybe even destroy it, is still a more powerful force than we will ever be.
The Poetry of Mary Oliver: An Invitation to “Your One Wild and Precious Life”, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by Amy Stauber, July 23, 2017.