Mary Oliver and Wild Geese

 It is that time of year again. It is always some time of  year, it is always again. This time, in this moment, we are approaching Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah; we are approaching the season of giving thanks, and of clinging to the hope that light will come again into our lives, our world.  At moments like this, I often take solace in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Wild Geese is one of my most favoritest poems by her. It is already all over the web, so I hope to high heaven I am not breaking too many copyright protections in reposting it here for you all to enjoy!  Maybe you can take it as an invocation to go and check out one of her books from the library? Or maybe even head over to your independent bookstore and buy one for yourself?

 “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).

Wild Geese

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.

And, here is a UTube Link to Mary Oliver herself reading Wild Geese and a couple of other poems:

What kind of cheese do you like?

Most of the stories that I’ve posted here are from here and there, kind of public domain parables.  But this one is pretty close to a true story…. close enough anyway.

A few years ago my partner and I were in Vermont at the Cabot Cheese store, where they have free samples of most of the flavors of cheese that they make. At that point I think we had been together somewhere around 25+ years – long enough to have a shared history and to buy into the delusion that we knew each other fairly well. I knew her favorite color is green, she knew my favorite color is blue. She knew I like rock and roll. I knew she does not.  We knew those kinds of warm intimate details that make relationships sweet and enable then to flow along.

So, we were at the Cabot store sampling cheeses. Well, Cabot makes a LOT of flavors of cheese. So, we spent a good while sampling, and re-sampling cheeses. We both came to the conclusion that we had sampled so much cheese we HAD to buy something. But what?  Of course it would never occur to us that we could by two different kinds of cheese, so next came the negotiation for what kind to buy.  I knew what I liked the best, but I also knew that my partner would not like my favorite kind of cheese. So, as we talked about what to buy, I suggested something more in line with what I thought she liked.  My partner thought about it for a few seconds, and suggested something else. Well back and forth we went trying to second guess each other, trying to make the other person happy and maybe get a little something of personal preference in there at the same time – all the while sampling more cheese of course.

Finally, she asked me what cheese I had sampled the most. I told her it was the extra, extra sharp cheese. I went on to talk about how I liked cheese so sharp you could you could cut something with it. Told her about how my grandmother had a butcher shop, since before I started school and my grandmother would sneak me slices of Vermont Black Wax cheese! (That is just the best, sharpest, finest tasting cheddar cheese in the universe as far as I am concerned – it comes with flavor, texture, nice saltiness and grandmotherly love!) And then my partner started to laugh quietly and ‘fessed up that extra sharp cheese was her favorite too. When we asked each other why that was not our first suggestion to each other, we both confessed that it was because we each thought the other would not like it. How did we mess that up! How did we not know this about each other? And after twenty five years we figured out that we had each been buying milder cheese because we both thought the other would not like the extra sharp!  Talk about an O Henry moment!! 

Of course it is not like we don’t talk about things. It is not like we don’t compare notes on anything and everything!  Two feminists committed to consensus! A social worker and a counselor! We process everything! And yet, somehow we missed this kind of basic detail about food preferences.  It just goes to show, that – well, there are no immaculate perceptions. Jane Austen had it right: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken (Emma).”  

So, if we would work for a world where human dignity is respected, where fairness is honored, then even after 25 years, even after 38 years, we still need to keep talking and listening and hearing what is said, always with an open heart and an open mind. And, we need to be able to laugh when we inevitably discover the gaffs in our perceptions and understandings. Laugh, forgive, learn and move on!

(Oh, and we bought the Vermont Vintage Choice Cheddar, aged for 24 months, rich, full bodied, extra sharp!)

Mila Repa the Eagle Tower Caves of the Red Rock Jewel Valley

Mila Repa was a great Tibetan Buddhist yogi.  But, before he became a yogi, Mila Repa was a bit of a scoundrel. I mention that only to highlight that indeed change is possible – if you are committed to it and work at it.  So this story is known as the tale of Mila Repa in the Eagle Tower Caves of the Red Rock Jewel Valley. 

 Mila Repa had been studying with his guru Marpa for a number of years, working to overcome the negative karma that he had accumulated during his years as a scoundrel.  Our Mila Repa was not yet the most patient man, and so he was not satisfied with the pace of his progress. Eventually Mila Repa convinced Marpa that he should go off to the caves to pray and meditate in solitude, to get away from the distractions of day to day life. Marpa merely smiled a Mila Repa’s insistence, and finally gave his blessing to his student’s insistence.

 One day, after Mila Repa had been living in the caves for some time he went out to collect firewood from the valley just below his cave. While he was out, a serious strom blew up. The wind was fierce, and as quickly a Mila Repa could pick up wood, the wind blew it out of his arms. The wind whipped his robes around and promised to tear off even that bit of protection.  As his frustration grew, Mila Repa remember the Buddhist injunction to be free of ego and attachments. And he chastised himself, saying something like, “What is the point of my great devotions and solitary practice if I cannot manage to control my own ego! Let the wind take my robes away if it wants to.”  And, just as he became aware of that thought, he fainted from the exertion and the struggle. When he came to, he observed that the storm had blown itself out, and he saw his tattered robe tangled in the branches of a nearby scrub tree.

 Necessity being necessity, Mila Repa gathered up his robes, put them on, got himself back together, and gathered up the firewood that he had set out for. After a bit more work, he got himself and the wood back to his cave.  When  he arrived at the cave, he was surprised to find that his cave had been invaded and taken over by five of the ugliest, most ferocious looking demons that he had ever seen. They were huge, smelly, drooling with large fangs and claws. Mila Repa was shocked to see them in his peaceful dwelling space. But, he had his own history of villainy, so, undaunted he introduced himself to the demons and asked them to leave. The demons took this to be impudent effrontery, and became menacing. They destroyed his food stores, they ripped up his books of prayers and scriptures, and generally wrecked havoc in the cave. Then they surrounded Mila Repa, growling and taunting him maliciously. The demons made it clear that they were serious in their malevolence. Now, Mila Repa was alarmed and afraid. This was no mere halucination. He was in mortal danger.

 Seeing their growing hostility, Mila Repa thought about his options. He thought about his years as a villan, and rejected violence as a possible response. He reaffirmed his committment to his Buddhist vows. He recited prayers of exorcism, with no effect. He preached Buddhism to them, he chanted Buddhist prayers and teachings to them, he told them of great acts of compassion from the history of Buddhism.  All of this to no avail. Indeed, all of this had the opposite effect, only increasing their hostility toward him.

Despairation was descending on Mila Repa. He thought about all he knew. He thought about his years of study of Buddhism, he remembered that our experience and interpretation of reality is but a projection of our own mind. He remembered that all of our experiences are but teachers, intended to open our heart to greater awareness and love. … Mila Repa laughed out loud as he realized how romantic and lofty he always thought those teachings sounded. And now, his life seemed to hang on his ability to put those teachings into practice. Mila Repa remembered all that he had learned about love and now understood it with a new fearlessness. He welcomed the demons into his home and his life. He invited them to talk and eat and play together. He listened to them, even as he challenged them to listen to him. They engaged in a dialogue. He listened and learned — not to their taunts as they presented them, but to the meanings of those taunts within the context of awareness, love and enlightenment. And Mila Repa’s understanding and practice grew deeper and more refined. The demons did not leave – they never leave. But, Mila Repa’s relationship to them was transformed. They became his greatest teachers. Crisis is both danger and opportunity.

Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

This is not my story — not that any of the other stories here are really original to me, but with the others, I’ve tweaked and played with them a bit here and there.  This story comes to you fairly directly from Ovid the original author. Ovid was a Roman poet at the beginning of the Current Era (CE). In his book, “The Metamorphoses” he tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. It is one of my favorite love stories. I think it speaks very powerfully to the alchemy of love.

The story begins with Jupiter and Mercury disguising themselves as mortals, and wandering the earth to see who would offer them food and rest. They were sent away from a thousand homes until finally they came to a humble dwelling, a small little cottage where they were invited in to shelter.  This was the home of Baucis and Philemon who were both in their later years. The furnishings of the home were very basic and simple and the food was meager, but all that was had was offered to the guests without hesitation. As the meal continued, Baucis and Philemon noticed that the bowls of food and the container of wine kept filling themselves of their own accord. The two surmise that their guests were immortals, and they were filled with awe and fear, concerned with the humble nature of the food they had shared with their guests.  Baucis and Philemon then tried to catch and kill their one goose, but the bird was too young and too fast for them and they could not trap it. The gods quickly told them not to kill the goose.

While all their neighbors had denied the gods hospitality, Baucis and Philemon willingly shared what they had. Because of this, the neighbors would be destroyed, but they would be spared the anger of the gods.  Baucis and Philemon were told to climb to the top of the nearest mountain. They did so, and when they looked back their valley was filled with water, with only their home remaining above the water line.  While they wept for their neighbors, their house changed into a temple to the gods. Then Jupiter spoke to them and offered to grant them whatever they would ask.  The husband and wife stepped back, consulted with each other, and asked to be priests in the temple, and since they had lived their lives together there; and they asked to die together.  And their request was granted.  

When they were of an extreme old age, they were standing in front of the temple, talking of old times, and Baucis saw Philemon sprouting leaves, and Philemon noticed the same of Baucis, and as the bark formed over their faces, they each spoke to the other their last words, “Farewell, my dear one.” And to this day, Bithynian peasants point to two trees standing close, growing from one double trunk. 

This story speaks of care and commitment; of lifelong love and love for strangers. Jacob Needleman (2005) notes that while most myths have their mystery in the middle, this one poses the mystery at the end: what kind of love can we search for and build in our journey of living together? What do we serve in each other with our love?  The story of Baucis and Philemon evokes questions about the meaning, nature and evolution of love.  What is love? What does love mean to you? What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to love someone (or something)? What kinds of love are there? What does it feel like to be loved? What are the costs of love?  What do you get from love? What do you give in love?

Needleman, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Life. Standpoint, ID: Morning Light Press.

the rice farmer, the fire and the tsunami

This is a story about community and love.

In Japan, Diachi was a rice farmer whose fields extended across an expanse of hill tops.  The neighbors often pitied Diachi and his family because of all of the additional difficulties they had to deal with as they struggled to farm the slopes of the hills. Each day however Diachi would work in their rice fields, and as they worked they would look out and see the ocean beyond the lands and they would pause and bask in the awe of its beauty and power.

 One day as Diachi was working his rice fields he looked out and noticed the ocean seemed to be drawing back, getting ready to leap like a wild animal. He knew the leap would be a tsunami. Diachi also knew that his neighbors who were working in the low lying fields must very quickly get to the high grounds of his hill or they would be swept out to the ocean in the overwhelming surge of waves where they would surely drown.  Without hesitating, Diachi and his wife set fire to their rice racks while the children desperately rang the temple bells. (In their community, everyone would respond to a fire bell because it is all too well known that no one can fight a fire alone – and a fire means starvation for a family.) Hearing the bell and seeing the smoke, Diachi’s neighbors rushed to help him and his family. As the villagers crested the hill and put out the fire, they turned back to see their own rice fields covered in walls of ocean waves. From the safety of the hills, they saw the torrents of the waters over the fields they had just left. The villagers recognized quickly saw that Diachi’s years of toil in difficult circumstances, his awe and reverence for the ocean, his sacrifice of his crops had all come together to save their lives.

The habits that we build in the small actions and tasks of our day to day lives all build together to set the foundation for the options and choices that will be available to each of us in larger moments of crisis. The theme of altruistic love that reaches out to help those in need is a common across cultures, traditions and religions.

Parable of the Cracked Pot

There was a woman who lived out in the country, not far from where I grew up in North East Pennsylvania, she lived so far out in the country, that her home did not have electricity or running water. So, each morning, she would take up her yoke with a large pot hanging on both ends, and down to the spring she would walk to get her water for the day.

 One of the pots was seamless and always carried its full capacity of water back to the home. The other pot had a crack in it, and by the time they arrived home, it was only half full. This journey went on for several years, with the woman arriving home with only one and half post of water to her home each day. Now, of course anthropomorphism was alive and well there and in this story! So, the seamless pot was proud of its accomplishments, and would often taunt the cracked pot about its failure to deliver.

 And of course, the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and was miserable that is was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After years of what is perceived to be bitter failure, with a sad heart, one day, the cracked pot spoke to the woman as they stood on the edge of the stream: “I am so ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. I feel a failure. I let you down each day as you work so hard at your tasks.”

 The woman said to the pot, “Did you not notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That is because I have always known about your structure, and I planted flowers on your side of the path. Every day while we walk back, you’ve watered them. For years, I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house, to make our house a home.”

 One moral of the story: each of us has our own unique structure and possibilities. We’re all cracked pots. But it is the cracks and idiosyncrasies we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding. It is those very diversities that add spice and zest to life! we’ve just got to take each person for who they are and look for the good in them. To see the goodness in someone, to will and to act to make that goodness grow – that is love, that is the deepest respect for human dignity. We just need to be awake to the possibilities and the potentials.

keep your heart open to new perceptions

When you work for social justice and human rights – when you work towards any long term goal, it is very easy to get frustrated and give up. It is very easy to stifle the creativity and enthusiasm of those who are new to the work, to squash their ideas saying: we already tried that, and it didn’t work. That dog don’t hunt!

Here is a story that reminds us, you just never know. Just don’t give up. And ALWAYS keep an open heart – and an open mind.

I read this story in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book,  Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake.  (1993). Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

One day while a father is away from his home in a small village, a band of terrorists came to the village, pillaged, plundered, burned all of the houses to the ground, and kidnapped all of the children, including the man’s son. When the father returned to the village, he was overcome with grief. He saw the charred corpse of a child in the ashes of what had been him home. He wept inconsolably, beat his chest, and performed funeral rites for his son. Then he put the ashes into an embroidered pouch, which he carried around his neck wherever he went, as was the custom in his culture.

Many months later, after the village had been rebuild, the man’s son was able to escape from the terrorists and the boy found his way home. That night, at about midnight, the boy knocked on the door of his father’s rebuilt home. But the father held tight to the pouch with his son’s ashes with tears streaming down his face refused to open the door. The child called out his name, but the man was convinced that his son was dead, and that the child at the door was someone mocking his grief. Finally the boy gave up and went away. The father and son remained separated.

            If we are immovably convinced of our conclusions, if we close our minds and hearts to new and renewed experiences and expressions of love, even when love and truth knock on our door, we will refuse to let them in. In Emma, Jane Austen offers an important caution, lest we presume knowledge more comprehensive than it is: “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”  Remember: there are no immaculate perceptions! Always be open to trying once more with feeling.