Wild Geese Chase

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.

—From “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

I came across Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” decades after I had already lived it – at least the part about the geese. How appropriate that when the world came calling on a bright September morning long ago, a flock of Canadian geese was flying directly overhead in victory formation, heading south. Their calls were as Oliver described them, harsh and exciting. I had walked down my driveway to fetch the morning paper as I had done a thousand times before. Nothing in my world was out of place, and yet all distance between myself and the clouds racing by overhead and the geese flying in formation seemed to have disappeared. There was no longer a boundary between “me” inside and the world outside; in fact, there no longer seemed to be a “me” at all, no inside or outside to anything, just one big undifferentiated whole.

The world offers itself to your imagination, Oliver wrote. That was the line in her poem that first caught my attention. Why imagination? Why, apart from the poet’s need for a few extra syllables, did she not simply say, “The world offers itself to you?” The reason, I think, is that imagination is the faculty that enables us to see beyond our own little world to the world as a living thing. Not just that there are living things in the world, like the wild geese with their urgent cries as they make their way south, but that the world as a whole is a living thing. It is a vast organism that in such rarified moments breathes with us and sees with our eyes and thinks our thoughts.

In time my early-morning walks down the driveway to fetch the newspaper once again became what they had been a thousand times before and what they have been a thousand times since. Once again I was breathing on my own, seeing with my own eyes and thinking my own thoughts. The geese have long since flown off to wherever geese fly off to in September. However urgent their cries to one another, I know I cannot follow, and I have learned not to try. I would only be chasing after memories that are no different from yesterday’s newspaper.

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