Friday, October 18, 2013

Trying to be good


A few lines from Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese":
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.
I've quoted these lines before, if not here, then elsewhere. When I first read them back in the late 80s, they resonated with what I felt at the time. I had spent part of my earliest adulthood walking on my knees, both literally and metaphorically, seeking to tame what I took to be the animal within. Saint Augustine was whispering in my ear, and Bernanos' gloomy country priest walked at my side. I was ready to follow Thomas Merton into the desert; indeed, I once took myself briefly to the monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, where Merton was in residence.

That was a journey of more than a hundred miles, and I was busy repenting, although of what I don't know.

As I read those lines from Mary Oliver in middle age, I had long been cultivating the "soft animal" within, immersing myself in the is-ness of things, the flesh and blood, the gorgeously sensual. No more walking on my knees, repenting. I walked proudly upright, with my sketchbook and my watercolors, my binoculars and my magnifier, sniffing the world like an animal on the prowl. I was letting my body learn to "love what it loves." Those were the years I wrote The Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone -- the most intensely creative years of my life. The world offered itself to my imagination, if I may borrow another line from "Wild Geese."

And now, another half-lifetime has passed. The soft animal dozes, the body seeks repose. And I think of the first line quoted above: "You do not have to be good." What could the poet have possibly meant by that? Of course one has to be good. In a cell at Gethsemane or on the bridge over Queset Brook, one has to be good. And so one tries, one tries. The soft animal of the body that nature has contrived for us is not fine-tuned for goodness.