Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
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.
This poem, and one that follows, are both part of my Funeral Service, whenever that happens to occur. I chose them both some time back, and this one, by a woman who perhaps best captures my sense of the world and our place in it, Mary Oliver, is my "benediction"; the final words given to those I have loved and whose lives I hoped I touched in some way that was meaningful for them; it is what I want them to believe, and to seek after, and to know is real and possible for them. During my Retreat a couple of weeks ago, Fr. Leo and I spent a fair amount of time discussing death, my death, in particular. If we accrue no other wisdom by the time we reach 50, one thing we now know for sure is that we are going to die. Death seems like an unhappy accident that happens to others up until we are about 35 when the gnawing chill of reality begins to tighten it's grip on us, when the first round of dissatisfied mid-life grumbling begins to escape our lips and wrap around our lives. By 50, we've moved through the worst of the midlife crisis, if we were going to have one at all, and we begin to accept...everything. We begin to accept the reality of our ultimate death, and we also begin to accept that we are who we are and that many, if not most, of the stated facts of our lives are not going to change much. That sounds like a rather grim and dark prognostication on the hoped for second-wind or post-menopausal zest that we are promised through advertisers who market these ideas to us hoping that we'll realize that such an exciting new realm of possibilities virtually screams for a makeover and new clothes plus a nip and tuck here and there~ maybe everywhere, now that we're really looking. If we have gained any other interior wisdom, we forgo the spruce up, or limit it to a kind of benevolent and selective maintenance, rather like getting more frequent oil changes past 100,000k on the car: we eat well ( or better ) and exercise more ( or some ) and if we're really smart, we smile a lot, dream well, and love with more depth, passion and ease than earlier. We take more genuine risks, knowing that the time is short for what matters most to us. For me, that always means people~my "tribe"; my darlings, those known, and unknown. They find me, I find them, we try to work it out and make it worth something. Those who know me well will tell you that I am not a cautious woman; I never have been. I take risks, sometimes major risks, some are, or could have been, dangerous, and I can only look to a loving God who has always protected me when my willingness to "rush in where Angels fear to tred" has posed more than a little emotional, or spiritual threat to me. I would always rather try than not try and even though sometimes, that ends up in what can only even generously be called disaster, it's also almost always worth it for the things that matter most to me. Fr. Leo asked me if I had planned my Funeral and I told him "yes...it's been in place for a long time now". I wrote it all down after my son Samuel died and I've revised a couple of small things since. Leo asked me to go further back, and then forward. He asked me to imagine my death-bed and my final hours: Who is there and why? How do I feel about each person: what do I want to tell them? Am I fearful, sad, peaceful or resistant? When the final few moments arrive, again, who, and why, my feelings, my sadness...
We then moved forward to my Funeral and the same kinds of questions with the addition of one: What do I hope people will say about me? What is my legacy? I told him that I hoped that people would say that I was a "True Midwife" in the sense that I was completely loving, present, available, honest, courageous and a wise and tender companion to them through their life journey. I hoped that didn't have to mean that I was always right, or always "nice" ( a term I hope no one ever uses to describe me; it's just too easy and usually means that one had qualities typically attributed to a door mat ) but that if I was "tough" or hard on someone, it was out of that ferocious and devoted love that knows that true healing and growth can only happen in the presence of both and that sometimes, it's all kind of messy and mucky; rarely "nice". I hope I gave everything I had and I hope I loved well; if I didn't then I will, without a doubt, be "in Hell" for eternity because that's the only way we arrive there; by failing to love.
He asked me then to imagine my body buried, and decomposing. To watch the entire slow process from within, to feel it, if I could, and to stay with those feelings. This was far more difficult for me because I couldn't do it "from within", probably because I believe, to the point of an automatic response, that I won't be "in" my body at that point, which presupposes an "I" that will be somewhere watching. The overwhelming feeling I had watching my body return to the elements was sadness. I was especially saddened at watching my hands fall away~I remembered how much work and pleasure they brought me, how many loving and passionate caresses given, how many meals made, how many laboring mothers' soothed, the babies caught, the children comforted and cared for, my piano...my hands.
For some, this may seem a grizzly exercise; something ugly and how in the world is it spiritual? Well, the spirit is the animating force to all of it and love animates the spirit. Being in the present moment, dealing with what is right in front of us, taking a contemplative approach to everything, including our dying, death and physical decomposition is taking life in hand and accepting who we are. We are finite. We are limited. And what we are at center, at the core, is infinite and eternal. What animates us, what we are here for, is what lives after us. It might be our love and kindness, in my case, "quiet kindness" as a new friend put it with some drollness, or it might be our work, art, writing, ideas or just the fact that our being here in poverty, want, need and distress allowed others to manifest their purpose for being; it all works together and it all works for good if we let it.
So, when I have died, and the "Big, Musical, Bells and Smells, Episcopal Church Funeral" is ended, my body, now ashes, will be taken to my beloved Lake in the UP and given to my friend there, someone who, if he is indeed still living, will have been my friend his entire lifetime, or very nearly. A big fire will be lit just before midnight, there will be singing and dancing, poetry and prayers. Everyone will have a bottle of Guinness as "Communion" shared in love, and what is left of me will be walked out to the end of the dock, and with ashes and bottle of Guinness in hand--my friend there to share one more beer with me--he'll cut me loose, the Guinness poured out after and around me, and I'll fly away...
Before my 'tribe' disperses, in the quiet of dark night and soft wind and waves lapping the beach, one more poem, and here it is for all of you:
Fishing in the Keep of Silence by Linda Gregg
There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim and standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
Have a fine weekend, everyone. I'm still working through my Retreat experience, and the events of this past week, which were a bit on the "risky"side of the sort I wrote about here but it's all good. It all comes 'round right in the end.