The scent of burning wood holds the strongest memory. Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper, all are distinct. Mesquite is dry desert air and mild winter. Cedar and piñon are colder places. Winter air in our hair is pulled away, and scent of smoke settles in its place. We walk around the rest of the day with the aroma resting on our shoulders. The sweet smell holds the strongest memory. We stand around the fire. The sound of the crackle of wood and spark is ephemeral. Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair, our clothing, our layers of skin. The smoke travels deep to the seat of memory. We walk away from the fire; no matter how far we walk, we carry this scent with us. New York City, France, Germany— we catch the scent of burning wood; we are brought home.
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.
Outside the house the wind is howling and the trees are creaking horribly. This is an old story with its old beginning, as I lay me down to sleep. But when I wake up, sunlight has taken over the room. You have already made the coffee and the radio brings us music from a confident age. In the paper bad news is set in distant places. Whatever was bound to happen in my story did not happen. But I know there are rules that cannot be broken. Perhaps a name was changed. A small mistake. Perhaps a woman I do not know is facing the day with the heavy heart that, by all rights, should have been mine.