I was in despair on Tuesday. The kind of despair that makes it seem nothing you do matters, and nothing you are matters. That makes action or speaking a Sisyphian effort. That makes you wish, however fleetingly, for the sweet comfort of release from this world. I felt very alone. So often we delude ourselves about our importance, fending off our insignificance in the vast universe by desperately seeking to make a mark, make a difference, avoid mistakes and the need for forgiveness from others and from ourselves. Then the delusion dissipates, and despair comes creeping in. We quickly forget the often quoted words of Max Ehrmann’s famous poem, “Desiderata.”
…You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
When I’m in despair though, Ehrmann’s words ring hollow and I perseverate on lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. (Though I always seem to forget his hopeful third quatrain and final couplet.)
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;…
I know depression and despair are not always lasting states, but when we’re in them, it seems they will be. Just a week before, I’d been framing art for a show, working on a memoir, cleaning my studio in preparation for a large and ambitious sculpture, and collecting shells and driftwood from my favorite beach. Doing, thinking, planning things that rooted me in the present and filled me with a sense of potential, even within the limits of this life that my chronic illness imposes—limits that so often prevent me from spending time in the rugged natural world I used to enjoy. Yet now, the despair had me in its grip.
In the evening, I turned to poetry. My favorite poet—wise, observant, not the least bit pretentious, and deeply connected to the sacredness of the natural world—Mary Oliver’s words offer me the experience of nature and spiritual connectedness to what so often seems an indifferent universe. I own every book she has written, but this night instead of pulling one out I looked her up on the web. Though I attend many live poetry readings, I have never had the privilege of hearing her. The first poem to come up on YouTube was “Wild Geese.” Perhaps a message from the not-so-indifferent universe that these were the words I needed.
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.
Born in 1935 and growing up in an abusive family, Oliver told Maria Shriver in O, “…I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.” She walked endlessly in the woods, and created a style that imbues all her work—that of taking notice of whatever happens to present itself and finding meaning or connection with it. Though in a recent New Yorker article, Molly Franklin notes, “because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. Despite this, Oliver has won many fellowships and prizes including the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Award.
Franklin writes, “often there is a moral to her poems. It tends to be an answer, or an attempt at an answer, to the question that seems to drive just about all her work: How are we to live?” Oliver’s answer: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. She tells Franklin, “Just pay attention, to the natural world around you—the goldfinches, the swan, the wild geese. They will tell you what you need to know.”
In her show On Being, Krista Tibbett referred to Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” as one that has saved lives. Perhaps because it is an invitation to accept that we belong here in this world, whoever we are, however we feel, whatever we’ve done or not done. We can share our despair and loneliness, and allow the world to call to us—like the wild geese—with all its harshness and excitement, reminding us that we have a rightful place in the family of beings.
As her reading ended, William Wordsworth came to mind. Like Oliver, a poet who celebrates the sacred in nature, Wordsworth describes his experiences and the memories it forges. In his “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” he lies upon his couch in “vacant or in pensive mood” and recalls the host of daffodils he saw dancing in the breeze beside a lake. As he remembers the moment, his mood lifts.
…And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
In Wordworth’s “Lines Composed a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” he offers a prayer to nature to remind us that no matter what happens in our daily lives, we may have faith that all is full of blessings.
…and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ‘tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead,
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings…
In “Praying,” Mary Oliver, also invites us to open ourselves to these blessings.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” ends with these lines:
…Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
And that, I suppose, is the big question. What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I, for one, don’t plan to spend mine steeping in despair.