Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames
February 1999

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 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 - 
In the family of things."

Ever noticed, when forced with an unexpected crises such as a sick relative or friend, death, or when your own life takes an abrupt and unexpected turn - that you see things differently. You see things, at least for a short time, with new, wiser, eyes. We gain perspective and all that we had been preoccupied with, frustration, loneliness, or anger, becomes viewed with a different more insightful outlook.

I want to have these moments of reasonable outlook (maturity, peace) without the crisis. I need to be nurtured by a reality larger than myself and my petty yearnings and complaints. I want to appreciate the significance of my place in the world. I want to understand my importance and relish my insignificance. I'm so much freer when I'm free from responsibility for everything.

This reality I speak of is larger than the human environment in which we believe ourselves to exist. The reality is that we are one part of an intricate weaving of living and nonliving matter, light and darkness, matter and non-matter. I believe that it is our disconnection from the larger natural world and each other that leaves us so empty. For me to find some inner peace I must be deliberate in my efforts to connect with nature to, as so eloquently put by Mary Oliver, 'let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

This connection is not easy. We have all these problems, global warming, diminishing prairies, spoiled water and spoiled food. I have little doubt that these problems sever my connections and leave me isolated and powerless. They gnaw at me and I can't get them to exit the corners of my mind. They drain me. I feel responsible but unable to correct these problems or even make amends.

I need a long slow drink from sweet pure water to have the strength and willingness to clean the unpure water. I need the time with undisturbed soil and sky to have the strength to nurture disturbed earth. We cannot give when we've given all our energy away. If we try to give more than we have we will become unpure and disturbed. We must be refreshed.

Moments of connectedness can be spontaneous or deliberate, joyful or sorrowful. A real connectedness is required to experience the true depths of loss. Without that depth we are unable to feel the height of joy. I think it helps if one is open to the opportunity to connect and give oneself a place and time to experience sweet water, undisturbed earth, and the bittersweet flavor of connections lost. Children given the environment, naturally have these moments. I have memories of some of these moments and these moments stay with me for a lifetime continuing to restore my commitment to live well and with meaning.

I remember as young girl, I loved to swim and was good at floating. I had learned to float on my back with my legs dangling below the surface of the water. If I put out my arms, arched my chin gently to sky and then relaxed all the muscles in my body I could remain at the water's surface indefinitely. I could feel the lake, I could be one with the lake and feel the openness of the sky above me. I was free, I was nurtured, I felt acceptable and accepted. It is a feeling I need more often.

As a teenager and as grown women have I have laid down on my back in the sunshine in an open field or on a large rock and believed that I could feel the curvature of the Earth in the small of my back.

I've seen red-tailed hawks courting. It was night and I was skiing. I heard them sing to each other in the cold, crisp night air. One evening about a month later my daughter told me with much excitement that she had watched these same birds gathering sticks and building a nest in the large white pines outside our home.

I have set a prairie on fire and felt the heat of a thousand sunny days being released in an instant.

While camping, I have been humbled by a rather terrifying nocturnal invasion of our food pack by a large black and slobbery bear. On the night following, I proudly smoked a cigar sanctified by bear spit.

I have seen a falling star that was so large and felt so close I could almost feel its heat and hear it streak through the sky.

I had cat that had been my pet for about 7 years. He contracted Feline leukemia. In an effort to relieve him of suffering, I had to find the courage to hold him as he lay dying of a lethal injection. He purred to tell me it was alright and I was richer for the experience.

I have acknowledged the taste of spring in tender lettuce, strawberries and asparagus, the summer tang of tomatoes and peppers, and the autumn flavor of apples and squash. In the winter, I eat soup and acknowledge the lack of color in my food, I long for the fruits of other seasons knowing that I will be blessed with the gift of gratitude later.

You do not have to fix all that is wrong with our relationship with the natural world to be given permission to enjoy it. It is the intimacy that we build with this world that will be what can heal it and therefore us. As Wendell Berry put it:

"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free."