I know this is Mary Oliver’s most loved, widely quoted, and repeated poem, but these are words that live with me. Especially during dark days when depression or despair weigh so heavy my heart can hardly bear it. In my head, I hear her saying, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…” and it gives me courage to continue. To work through the painful things, to wonder at what cannot be explained, to remember that I have–as we all do– a “place in the family of things”.
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.
You can find this poem in Owls and Other Fantasies.