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.
view the whole poem here
This Mary Oliver poem is iconic, a classic often quoted, and for good reason. Her words are such an invitation to belonging, to accepting ourselves just as we are.
You do not have to be good – how often in your life have you been admonished to be good? been confused, as I was, about what that even meant? perhaps thought of yourself as bad? How would you live differently if you were not trying to be as good as you already are?
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting – crawling on my knees brings to my mind religious images of mortification of the sinful body, terrifying to me as a child. Repenting – another term with religious connotations for me, somehow suggesting you can never apologize enough – especially difficult when we don’t even know what we have done wrong!
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves – what is it like to consider your body as an animal with its natural instincts? How do you hear ‘the soft animal of your body’? Soft suggesting an inherent sensibility, desirable? or something to be avoided, distasteful?
I invite you to say these lines aloud using the pronoun ‘I’ for ‘you’, ‘my’ for ‘your’. Just to feel what might happen in your body.