Simple Gifts

Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 9:10am

Simple Gifts

To feel at home in my own skin... To feel at home on the face of the earth...

I sometimes think that those are the two deepest yearnings in our lives. What I know for sure is that life becomes very painful when I don't feel at home with who I am, or with the rich diversity of beings with whom I share this planet.

When I'm feeling out of whack with myself and/or with others, I often turn to this much-loved Mary Oliver poem, with deep gratitude for the way she reminds me of life's simple but astonishing gifts. Whoever we are, and however we are, each of us has a place of welcome and honor "in the family of things"...

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.
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.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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I love this, but is it "gees" in the original?

Trent Gilliss's picture

Producer's error. Thanks for catching.

Twice in the last week people have recommended Mary Oliver's poetry to me. The last sentence's meaning is a little obscure. The world can be a lonely place in my view, and yet... (I need to reflect on this some more).

I love this poem, and the opening line especially. "You do not have to be good." I sometimes find myself in a state of constant striving--not just for truth, love and justice in the world, but for unreachable perfection in myself. It is exhausting. MO so effectively reminds us that it is not true. We are human. We do not need to live above the world, but in it. Thanks for reminding me of that. (And for a wonderful retreat in Wisconsin a few weeks ago. I'm back in chilly Sweden and still reflecting on the woodcarver, and many other wise things that were said. Thanks.)

Hi, Cristin: Many thanks for your kind words about the retreat. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope we will meet again "downriver." In the meantime, all good wishes with your important work in Sweden, and be assured that it's still chilly here in Wisconsin as well! Warm wishes, Parker

You help to make daily sense in my life as the years and events pass ('m now 71yrs.). I first listened to you on VPR: Speaking of Faith, as I drove to Meditation on Sunday nights at 7pm. When that wonderful program was changed to 7am on Sunday mornings, I had t adjust my life to that early rising and I did. You then changed to On Being - and that has worked out too. Please never stop providing us with inspiration that make the difference - it certainly does in my life. I'm very grateful to you.
Much appreciation, Charlotte

The world is a beautiful messy place. Full of paradox. Oliver's poem reminds me not to take myself too seriously and to strike a balance between the sublime and the ordinary. I adore her poems.

I have been in love with Mary Oliver's poetry and this is indeed one of my favorite pieces, yet I never owned any of her poetry. Three weeks ago I picked up one of her books at our UU book sale and I cannot put it down.
Thank you.