The Mary Oliver Twist

“You do not have to be good.” Whenever I read Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” I’m tempted to stop after the first line. If you grew up anything like me (i.e. human), then her words (like wild geese) fly in the face of everything you were taught to believe. And if you are anything like me, then her words carry an immediate emotional power…but seem terrifyingly dangerous. Perhaps I should speak for myself. I HAVE to be good because if I’m not good, then what AM I?

When I was in first or second grade there was a spelling bee at the local mall. Trust me. It was a big deal. I’d talked about it for weeks. After all, I was the best speller in my class (of 10ish children), and I was confident I would win. So, there I was, on stage with some other kids of all different ages. I was so nervous. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the microphone, and the moderator asked me to spell “obey.” This was an easy one, but I was shaking: “uh-O-B-uh-E-Y.” And these are the words that I heard in return: “I’m sorry, but obey only has one “E.” Mother fuckers. I was out after the first round because I stuttered. And because my sister was also in the spelling bee, I had to watch the rest of it. I knew how to spell every single word.

That DEEP INJUSTICE J has haunted me for thirty years now, but only recently have I been struck by the irony of a) getting that word and b) not spelling it to the judges’ satisfaction. I grew up in a culture in which the “best” children AND adults were the ones who obeyed. And I was really, really good at it. I was really good at learning the rules, following them myself, and making sure everyone around me followed suit (because those are the rules). And that means that I was good, and that’s what mattered.

“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” Fuck you, Mary Oliver. Yes I do. I deserve to suffer, and there is comfort in the pain. If my knees are bleeding, then I must be doing something right. Feeling good is dangerous. It’s the sinful things that feel good, things I have to stay away from. I need to deprive myself, flog myself, remove myself, and live a life of asceticism. And this is Mary Oliver’s response: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Are you kidding me? What kind of fucked up ideology/theology/philosophy is this that eschews masochism and encourages authenticity, wholeness, or God forbid, pleasure? For those of us whose image of God is vengeful, capricious, and unable to tolerate our questions, confusion, and doubt, giving up our self-deprecating, self-defeating self-righteousness is akin to removing battle armor in a warzone. We are certain our “soft animal” would be blown to bits.

So we live in fear that we will be found less than, inadequate, or wanting. We have so long deprived ourselves of our own wants that we do not recognize our own desire. This is not goodness. This is madness. Life is not a zero-sum game. We do not have to lose for others to win. We do not have to suffer so that others can survive. There is a place for sacrifice. It can be noble, brave, and selfless. But most of us aren’t giving up our lives for others. We refuse to embrace our own lives because we are afraid to live. We are afraid that, like Oliver (Twist, not Mary), we will be ridiculed and punished for asking for more.

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