“Tell me of despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
This past spring, I struggled. With silent stealth, an unfamiliar desolation supplanted my joy. And I wasn’t alone. Others I loved also felt something unseen grasping at their ankles, threatening to pull them underwater. As we looked into each other’s eyes and saw reflected our own panic that we were losing our footing, I was reminded of a line from the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. “Tell me of despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
This line reads like a sacred invitation, and it is one my friends and I passed back and forth between us, all last spring. Anxious and unsteady, we told our stories of despair. We spoke of feeling felled by the enormous challenge of being the center of all things. We asked each other why our best never felt good enough. And, at the heart of our conversations was the fear that we were losing our precious essential self, that our light was in danger of going out.
There was no simple antidote for this dark, creeping uncertainty that weighed on our hearts, so when our stories were spent, we reassured and soothed each other as best we could. We said, “Be gentle with yourself. It will be okay. You are enough just as you are.” We were a modern-day echo of the opening lines of “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.”
I couldn’t help thinking that Oliver–who was close to my age when she first published this poem back in 1986–had struggled painfully with her own despair. Grasping at this kinship, I recited these lines like a holy mantra to keep myself from drowning.
“Meanwhile the world goes on.”
As spring proceeded and I still couldn’t catch up with my happiness, what I began to fear the most was becoming mired in despair. I began to wonder with increasing desperation if I would ever find my way back to myself or if my anguish would usurp all I was.
Midway through her poem, Oliver writes, “Meanwhile the world goes on.” In what seems like an abrupt shift, she describes the never-ending cycle of the natural world–the sun “moving across the landscape” and the “clear pebbles of rain” falling over mountains and rivers. Even though I’ve loved this poem for twenty years, it was only when I stood in the center of my recent despair that I finally understood the pivotal wisdom of Oliver’s deviation. Her words were prodding me to stretch beyond myself, and remember that the rhythm of life continues despite the heaviness of my despondency.
I read once that the ultimate spiritual challenge we all face is how to hold the dual concepts that 1) each of us is singularly significant and 2) we are but a mere speck of nothingness in the vastness of the cosmos. Our despair matters and our despair is inconsequential. “Meanwhile” is a lifeline of hope that Oliver hands us–perspective of our suffering within the hugeness of creation.
And it was the opposite perspective of hope that my friend Howard offered me when I spilled my woe at his feet. I told him that I felt so hammered by failure that my faith in myself had shattered into a million pieces. “I thought I could fix everything if I just tried hard enough. I thought I could change the world,” I admitted with a painful, self-deprecating laugh. “But I haven’t.”
“You haven’t yet,” he said.
I shook my head, not understanding.
“You haven’t changed the world yet,” he explained.
Meanwhile. Yet. These are the possibilities that offer us an escape from our despair. They are the tough love that says, “Stand up, dust yourself off, and try again.”
“Announcing your place/ in the family of things.”
And we did. Throughout the months of spring, my friends and I fought hard against the undertow of our uncertainty and fear. We exchanged our stories and reminded each other of our worth. We handed one another a thousand “meanwhiles” and hundreds of “yets.” But more often than not, I was on my knees, burdened by a weight I could not define and disoriented by my inability to find my truth.
As the weather warmed, a friend, who was swimming hard against her own despair, sent me an email telling me all the ways I was good. In closing, she offered to hold my hand tightly as I found my way back to myself. The image of she and I linking hands across space penetrated the awful isolation that accompanied my despair–the terrible loneliness that all spring had obscured my view of the future and bit by bit wrung me of my strength.
Feeling a surge of hope, I, in turn, wrote to several other friends, offering to grasp their hands as they struggled against the tide. I envisioned us making a chain of strength that lifted each of us to our feet. I felt us rising up in fierce determination, a human bridge leading each of us back to our precious center.
Oliver’s poem concludes:
“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.”
One by one, we clasped each others hands and held on tightly–our shared despair connecting us, saving us, welding us together as family.
And slowly, as spring turned to summer, many of us, myself included, were called back to ourselves. As the despair receded, we were able to stand a little taller and cast our eyes farther. In doing so, we rediscovered our place within the world. “Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again,” Oliver writes. Able to see my way clearly again, I am returning home to reclaim my unique significance. As I travel, I will guard carefully the memory of this past spring. I will keep Oliver’s poem close to my breast, like a touchstone, so I don’t forget what I have discovered in despair’s wake–this powerful knowing of who I am: A single light burning bright with significance in the shared radiance of the world’s imagination.
“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,/ are heading home again.”
(For the complete poem, please click here.)