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Mary Oliver Was Good
By Mari Pack
I thought Mary Oliver was Canadian. I had to ctrl + F her Wikipedia page when she died to make sure. She was actually from Ohio. Outside of Cleveland. A quintessential American city. A once major manufacturing center. A place I have never been. Unlike Canada, where I lived for two years.
Being Canadian carries with it a moral imperative. It is my own personal bias. That Canadian things are good. Even when some of them are bad. When perhaps many of them are bad. When Doug Ford exists. When pipelines are built over indigenous land. The times when Canada is objectively not good.
But Mary Oliver was good. At least for me. I like her in a way that is emotional and undirected. In a way that I have not critically analyzed. I like her because of feelings. Because of my own personal bias. I like her for the same reason any of us like writers. Because she was there for me when I needed her.
I went to Canada for graduate school. I loved many things about Toronto, but it was very also difficult. I was broke. I was exhausted. I had to build my community from scratch. This was when I wanted to be a professor. Before I became a poet. Before I knew what poetry could do. How it would heal me.
Graduate school is designed to make people crazy. There are other aims, of course. But after Derrida and Annie Proulx, what I remember most about school is imposter syndrome. We all felt it. You’re a sociopath if you didn’t. I was fresh out of undergrad. Honestly too young to be there. Debatably not smart enough.
I also had a boyfriend. He was Canadian. Older. He was getting sick. We competed ruthlessly. Over grades. Over love. It was before I knew that I could leave him. I lived under the combined weight of his slow illness and that feeling, you’re not good enough to be here. There is more to the story of him and I, but it is not for here.
I interned in a building called Hart House. It was a student center. Beautiful. Gothic-revival. I shared an office with a woman named Carly. She was a writer and an activist. An artist. A version of someone I could imagine growing into and being happy about it. She had produced for the CBC. She had survived cancer. She had met David Bowie.
I don’t remember what I said, but I remember how I felt. I was overwhelmed. In the middle of my finals essays. Canada was mercilessly cold in December. I did not yet have all my people. I was angry. I was scared. I felt woefully inadequate to endure any of it. I was sorry for myself. For being so pathetic.
Carly suggested I read a poem. It was 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.
I had spent my entire life trying to be good. Good enough. To meet some unattainable standard. Which I had set. Especially then. When I was lonely. That I could allow myself to be simply alive was a revelation. Not to suffer for growth.
The same time next year I was still working at Hart House as a program assistant. I had a Master’s Degree. I already found it irrelevant. I went home. Was in a mood. Still broke. But surrounded by good people. Overall, very happy. I shared the poem with my roommates. We all swapped Mary Oliver stories. My one roommate, Claire, had six tattoos. “I almost got a Mary Oliver tattoo years ago,” she said. She was glad she hadn’t.
Maybe Mary Oliver isn’t the type of poet you tattoo on your body. She is too obvious. Too popular. Too soft. Her poems can read as too simple. Too plain. Like something your mom would write. But she was also good. To me. To you, reader. And that is good.
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