This essay went out through my newsletter on 2/08/2019.
Every night around 5pm, thousands of grackles flock to the old power plant in downtown Austin. Grackles, especially the male ones, look a little bit like crows, but crows drawn by an eight-year old with a flair for angles. They're sleek with big broad tails and an impressive variety of screechy and zipper-like calls. I watch them arrive in big wheeling flocks from the north windows on the third floor of the new Central Library. From my perch, I can also watch people on the street below, pausing to take in the nightly show.
I've been paying more attention to these things since Mary Oliver died. I’ve had a fraught relationship with Mary Oliver. for a while. On the one hand, I find Wild Geese so moving that I once tried to memorize it specifically so that I could recite it to myself when my anxiety rears up. I quit halfway through, and probably have it a third memorized? Let’s see: You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting... other stuff. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me your... pains? Secret shames?... and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, wild geese… something.
Maybe not quite a third. The point is, I truly love it. On the other hand, though, I find the ubiquitous presence of those famous lines--and the other, even more famous ones from a different poem: "tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"--in the feeds of instagram influencers more than a little threatening. If I'm going to ask myself that question at all (which, more below), I want to do so in the deepest, most private part of my brain. I don't want to be confronted with this almost obscenely private question by yet another capitalist pretending to be a guru ("you do not have to be good, you just have to have a disposable income").
That’s not really fair (I mean, it's a little fair, but). Even if I never saw it in another post, Oliver's question would still, in a completely inescapable way, be the drumbeat of my current days. In August, I earned my PhD. I also lost a job I loved, a job I was sure would lead me gently out of academia and back into the world. But it didn't work out, and since then, nothing else really has, either. I'm applying and searching, but more often than that, I'm asking and avoiding.
Because the truth is, I am drenched in shame these days, swimming in buckets of it, and on most days I will do almost anything to avoid recognizing that simple fact. What am I going to do with my life? I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure I've made a mess of it so far, and that feeling is enough to drive me away from the things I need and sort of want to be doing (applying for jobs! Writing! Sorting out the horrible and exciting void that stretches out in front of me) and into the realms of Twitter and Instagram, where I can pretend that my life matters by association. Where I can watch and judge as other people feel things, or pretend to feel things. Where I can pretend, too.
This is objectively not helpful! Nor is it what Mary Oliver meant. I forget where I saw this, but someone pointed out that she seems to have spent much of *her* wild and precious life walking around and noticing things. So I'm trying to notice more things these days, too. Like how my shame sits with me, even when I'm watching the grackles come in. And how sometimes, when I’m transfixed by the shimmering murmurations above me, or the fox that crossed my path last fall, or the beat of my heart when I’m running—then, when I’m really paying attention, even my secret sweaty shame seems lovable.
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.