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A poem that gives you permission to not “be good”

As she tries to remember who she is when she’s not a carer, Ella Risbridger is quoting Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese like a mantra

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By Ella Risbridger on

I write a lot about new poems in this column – both poems that are newly written, and poems that are new to me. This one is neither. It’s Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver, and probably you know it already. You can read it here (and in lots of other places on the internet) if you haven’t already, and I think you should. It’s one of those poems that is always being quoted, for a very good reason.

I think of it as an autumn poem, because of the geese, and the “clean blue air”; I don’t think there is any sky clearer and cleaner and bluer than a cold bright day in November. And I am back in November. Proper November.

I have been seeing my friends, making plans, making soup. I have been walking in the leaves and through the mud and with a small dog. I have been wearing a big coat and proper stampy walking boots. I have been remembering what autumn is like, and what I am like in autumn.

It’s been wonderful, actually, and very hard too. And I have found this poem, this week, to be helpful. Maybe, whatever is going on in your life, you might too.

“Meanwhile the world goes on” is a wonderful line to keep in mind when you are returning to a life you abandoned for (in one sense) a couple of months, and (in another sense) a couple of years.

You probably know, if you’re reading this, about everything that led me to this point: my boyfriend’s cancer, my boyfriend’s brain injury, the long, slow process of recovery which is still nowhere near over. He’s not home yet. We now can’t say when that might be possible. We don’t even know, now, what “home” might mean. What we can say is that he’s somewhere safe, where they treat him with respect and dignity, where he’s making careful progress. Where I don’t have to be everything any more; where I can finally step down from being Chief Carer (with everything that entails) and go back to being, simply, Ella.

There is not a single line in it that you don’t want to repeat and say over to yourself like a mantra to get yourself through a difficult time

I don’t think we talk enough, culturally, about how much the act of caring distances you from the world. You can’t do any of the things you used to do; you can’t enjoy things the way you used to. You can’t relate to people, because your concerns are no longer theirs. You’re always a step removed from everything. You’re always busy, and even when you’re not busy, you feel guilty about enjoying things. You wonder, constantly, if you should be doing something else. Should I be doing something productive? Should I be doing something for him? Should I be at his side? Should I be feeling this guilty, less guilty, more guilty?

But: “You do not have to be good”, says Mary Oliver. What a radical, gorgeous, glorious sentence that is. You do not have to be good! It’s especially potent for women, I think. Or anyone who grew up hearing “good girl” held up as the flipside of “boys being boys”. You do not have to be good! You only have to love things, and talk to people, and be part of the world.

Personally, I think that’s probably what being “good” is – loving things, and talking to people, and listening to people and to geese- but it takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? You do not have to be good. You only have to exist, and realise that you’re existing.

That’s what I’m trying to do, I think. I am not “being good”. I am not “repenting”. I’m just trying to remember who I am when I’m not sitting in a hospital every day; I’m trying to “let…[my] body... love what it loves”, as Mary Oliver says. I love soup. I love walking. I love being outside, the leaves, listening for birds in the trees. I have not yet seen any wild geese, but I live in hope.

And that, I suppose, is the whole point. I live in hope. I get to hope. Like Mary Oliver says:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.”

You see now why this poem is so endlessly quotable; why it is such a classic. There is not a single line in it that you don’t want to repeat and say over to yourself like a mantra to get yourself through a difficult time.

I think the power of it is twofold, really. The first part is that it’s for you, no matter how lonely; it’s directly to you, reading it, reading this right now. This means you.

And this is the second part: it’s that you have a “place/ in the family of things”. You, reading this, belong to the family of things. No matter how lonely, you have a family, going back millions of years to our first common ancestor with all living things. You belong here. I belong here.

We all belong here, and that (I think) is about the most important thing to remember, if you’re ever sad.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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