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March 21, 2022

A Mary Oliver Poem for when your Heart has been Broken to Pieces.


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I sat waiting for my plane to start boarding.

Truthfully, I had a lot of time. I watched as all the “regular” people sidled up to the bar and ordered Guinesses and burgers—it all looked really fun.

That’s not me, I thought. All the recovery memes played in my head as my eyes kept roaming over to the bar: “I think about having a drink with dinner, but then I remember I have plans for Christmas” and “I’m allergic to alcohol…every time I drink, I break out in handcuffs.”

Which I don’t. Luckily, I have no criminal record. Even my speeding tickets have been plead down to parking fines. Still though, as they board the plane headed for Heathrow Airport in London, there I am, over the moon that I’m going to be seeing Europe for the first time in my life. I overhear the flight attendant ask the people three rows away if they want bottled water, soda, wine, or beer. I think about the last time I drank Merlot. It was a pleasant memory. Suddenly, it’s my turn.

“Red wine,” I blurted out as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

It doesn’t sound too off the beaten path, except for the fact that I haven’t taken a drink in 11 years. “Just for this vacation…” I promise myself. Then the opening of Mary Oliver‘s poem “Wild Geese” starts to play in my head:

“You do not have to be good…”

According to Oliver, I do not have to be a goody-goody. I put in my time. I stayed sober and abstinent for 11 years. I’m a grown-up now. Every night in Athens, I took the elevator up to the rooftop bar and looked out at the Acropolis as I sipped a mimosa. Life seemed so beautiful.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…”

At that moment, I loved life. I was thousands of miles from the United States with an entire week laid out before me, and a hotel room with a balcony that looked out over the starry Athens night. I was in the middle of one of the most exciting adventures of my life. I’d been kicked around since I was a child, and I couldn’t help but think “look at me now.” My new book was on display at bookstores from Great Barrington to San Francisco, and little ol’ me was in Greece with a money belt stuffed with thousands of Euros.

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”

I am alone. I woke up alone. I went to bed alone. I boarded the ship that took us to Mykonos, Aegina, and Poros, and I was alone. Families and couples from one side of the vessel to the other, and there I was—alone.

I walked the city streets of Athens alone. I laid out on the beach alone. I ate in restaurants alone. I reintroduced myself to alcohol…alone.

“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…”

Six months of functional drinking has only brought me to a place where I just stopped feeling. I mean, I still get annoyed at the day-to-day work things, I still feel the pulling of my heart when I look at the photos of my daughters sitting peacefully next to my writing desk, but I notice that when it’s time for therapy, I’m at a loss for things to talk about. That only tells me that that deeper place has all but shut down. That injured childhood place that I always seem to revisit during these appointments has become sort of like a concession stand at Coney Island in January—desolate and windswept.

“…calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting…”

Yet, for some reason, my YouTube algorithm suggested Mary Oliver reciting “Wild Geese” yesterday, and I felt a tear roll down my cheek.

Those words were so powerful and needed that they broke through the armor of vodka and orange juice and touched my heart where it hadn’t been touched for too long. I hear what she is telling me: it’s okay. This thing that I am going through—this passive tantrum, this protest to the way life seems to always come at me—it’s okay. I don’t have to be a superhuman goody-goody just because I wrote a book trying to help others with the very issue I am struggling with right now. This is all a part of life. We are meant to struggle right up to the end.

“…over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

My place in the family of things. This last line assures me that no matter how I feel, I am not alone after all. We all belong. We are all in this together.

Oliver’s words make me feel, and perhaps my words will make someone else feel or, better still, lead them to Oliver’s words. It’s all one great, big connected network of triumph and sadness and joy and loneliness—and we are all here together experiencing every bit of it.

And for this, I am grateful.


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