In the cool morning air amid the coastal trees, the high desert of New Mexico seems a world away. I have returned from my personal retreat to dear Taos at the foot of the sacred mountain, and once again find myself at this small writer’s cottage I currently call home. Here at the edge of a continent, the familiar threshold of earth, sea and sky, I am slowly changing shape—waiting for my soul to find its way home from its wanderings and catch me up.
The sky sings a melody of soft blue as the tall green conifers reach up to catch hold of it. Barefoot, a corn fiber broom in my hand, I rhythmically sweep away the brown pellets of fallen Monterey cypress needles that have carpeted the deck and brick walkway in my absence.
I rose late this morning after yesterday’s travels, emerging from the house to greet the day in my usual way: a standing, mini-meditation, my barefoot ritual of being sole to soil. A quiet opportunity to offer thanks and gratitude, to toss intentions and prayers to the firmament like the golden millet I scatter on the railing and earth for the little birds. Stepping out to greet the holy in everything.
Sweeping becomes its own ritual, the everyday sacred embodied, breathing in and out with bare feet upon the cool wood and bricks. Whsssk, whsssk, whsssk …
I hear them before I see them and immediately look up. My eyes scan the pale blue sky through the trees as my heart launches on wings in my chest, responding to the sound of wild geese honking. Through the shapely boughs of the great old grandmother cypress I spy them, six Canadian geese in a V-formation, flying low. Calling out.
How odd and wonderful to see them here. Not that there aren’t an abundance of wild geese around, especially at the Carmel River and wetlands sanctuary at the shoreline, but my cottage is a mile north of there, and I don’t usually see or hear them flying over the town.
Broom in hand, I watch them pass south with rapidly beating wings, their voices calling out to my soul in an autumnal song and invoking a wordless cry of jubilation in my heart in reply. In an instant, my heart’s tone shifts and becomes the poem “Wild Geese” by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, as if summoned by the flying birds themselves.
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 have only 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 clear pebbles of rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and 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.
I know Oliver’s words by heart. It is one of the first poems I chose to learn and carry inside so it would always be with me, offering comfort and inspiration wherever I may roam.
A poem spoken aloud is a wondrous thing. Years ago, during my apprenticeship as a guide for wilderness quests and nature-based transformational work, I first encountered poetry as a powerful means to touch and open the soul. Yet the poems we as guides offered to the group were generally read aloud from a book or notebook, and it was not until a men’s conference in the California redwoods last year that I experienced the power of poets’ words carried in the heart and then offered aloud from memory. (I wrote a post about it, “A Poem by Heart: A Soul Practice“)
Myself, I don’t yet carry that many heart poems myself, perhaps twenty; some are brief, others lengthy. “Wild Geese” is always there in my pocket like a smooth green stone rubbed smooth from wishing upon it.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Hearing the geese as I sweep the bricks and deck feels like a different sort of welcome home than the wild coyotes of Taos in last week’s journal. Once again I am reminded of the goodness of this place. Be here now. It’s a neighborhood, yes, but one that is quiet enough at night and in the early mornings that when I step out to gaze at the moon or greet the day, I can hear the low, rumbling voice of the sea less than a mile distant.
Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air / are heading home again.
Soul, come home. Be at home and at peace. Sit by the brick hearth and watch the light fade through the westerly windows as the pastel mysteries of dusk gather close with timeless, hushed voices.
When I first met Oliver’s poem, I loved the initial lines—her encouragement to be in my body and let that soft, sensual animal-nature love what it loves. In the ten years since, as I have deepened into relationship with this dear friend, I’ve come to cherish the final lines equally as the beginning ones.
I have spent much of life searching for my place in the world, that elusive locale where I feel at home, nourished by both nature and culture—the place where my beloved feels the same—while I continue to discover what is uniquely mine to bring and offer. As a fringe dweller and reluctant mystic, sometimes it is a lonely journey, even in the warm comfort of intimate relationship with a good-hearted mate.
Wild geese passing overhead on a crisp autumn morning in a quiet little, tree-filled town near the sea. Unexpected messengers of mystery and soul. Welcoming me, reminding me, your life is not elsewhere, nomad. Dream. Create. Breathe in this moment with senses cast wide, a broom in hand, feeling earth under bare soles and a heart echoing with poems and beauty.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination…
I stepped out to greet the holy, to connect with the cool soil, and to sweep the porch. If ‘holy’ seems a tricky word, we might call it sacred. Call it intelligence. Or simply pause to marvel and awe, and know that it greets and witnesses us in return, everything from glistening spider web to laughing crows to fading blossom on the vine.
How lovely it feels to be welcomed—by place and sanctuary, the smile and warmth of the beloved, and by nature and wild things—and find a poem rising in the heart.
Here. Now. Breathe in, breathe out, and celebrate your place in the family of things.