National Poetry Month, Day 28 // In my twenties, newly out of college and on my own, starting a new career, finding my way in the world, I had learned that I had to be good, very good, if I were to amount to anything in life. My parents, particularly my father, had taught me well what was expected of me. It was about then that I was drawn to a book by Samuel Smiles, Character, published in 1876, that began, “Character is one of the greatest motive powers in the world. In its noblest embodiments, it exemplifies human nature in its highest forms, for it exhibits man at his best. ¶ Men of genuine excellence in every station of life . . . command the spontaneous homage of mankind.” It became my burden to become a man of character.
Already, however, seeds had been planted that would grow into something else: authenticity. Looking back, I can see how they began to germinate in my early teens, but I was in my thirties before I could identify them for what they were, and are. I’ve been cultivating them ever since.
The timing has not been much different for me than for anyone. Human development, at least in the Western world in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, tracks through common and predictable stages. But I wasn’t able to appreciate the stage I was in until later, when I was out of it and could look back at it. Until now, that is. In this latest stage, I’ve been recognizing fruit that, while it hasn’t yet matured to its full ripeness, is ripe enough to taste and enjoy. The waiting seems to be ending, and I seem at last ready to, as Mary Oliver puts in her poem, “let the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves.” At last, I’m enjoying my “place / in the family of things.” For me, it has all been worth the run.
“Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
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 have only 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 wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.