You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
(Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)
On my walk this morning I saw the most wonderful sight: the tiny, pale green points of baby leaves hatching from winter’s buds. There were crocus in every other garden and bright new grass coating the lawns. The neighborhood I walk in is full of fantastically gorgeous homes, some over 100 years old, and there suddenly seemed to be landscaping trucks everywhere, denim-clad people pouring new concrete driveways, a few moss-slick decorative ponds being dug up and redesigned. Everywhere the urgency of spring and springtime work was in evidence. Edges were being redefined and weeds were already being beaten back with powders and seeds and sprays. I noticed many residents walking the length and breadth of these historic city lots, making lists of what survived the winter and what to replace. I could almost hear the mental tallies of stone and turf, new outdoor furniture, dreams of perfectly angled patio umbrellas. It felt like walking through a Nancy Myers movie set, all daylight and perfect taupe; everyone in their best gardening kit, everyone magically home at 9am on a Wednesday morning.
After several blocks of this perfection, I found myself looking for something else. Without being fully conscious of what I was doing, I noticed I was turning down side streets where the moss was still lying undisturbed and the shrubs hadn’t been as heavily manicured. Lawns containing quirky houses painted non-regulation blue and yellow and pink. Backyards full of whimsical sculptures in odd placement, patios with chairs still placed in the straggly circles of dinner parties gone late, where conversations were apparently more important than photo vignettes. Within these gardens the intoxicating scent of Daphne hid like a secret message. Clover was springing up in thick patches and pale green hellebore lifted their heavy bell-shaped faces. A few early honeybees bumped here and there in joyful drunkenness. These shadowed, overgrown patches were less regular, less uniform, and definitely less than pleasing to the wide-street neighbors with their teams of round the clock landscapers. But these straggly, overgrown beauties were made more beautiful in their juxtaposition to order. They had grown wild. Goodness had been discarded in favor of secret, velvet disarray.
I have spent so much of my life being good. Sometimes it’s come naturally and sometimes I’ve had to work hard at it, but I’ve usually been reliably good. I’m a good mother, a good friend, a good neighbor, a good wife, a good confidant, a good dispenser of good advice. For over 10 years I was a very good employee. For over 35 years I was also a good daughter. I took the punches and I kept showing up—beautiful, clean, orderly, and dressed to perform my duties to the best of my very good abilities. Life handed me a giant bowl of lemons as a child and I made gallons of really good lemonade. I had a good story about everything that had happened to me and I was so good about loving all of it. I was a poster child for effort. I was tired all the time but isn’t that the mark of a good woman? Tired, depleted, and cranky. Culturally, we don’t trust any woman who claims to be anything else, just like we are brought up to be mean to any woman who claims to love her body and isn’t always on a diet. I knew this and I lived up to almost every single cultural and religious expectation.
“The world goes on,” Mary Oliver says later in her poem. The world goes on, whether or not we are good. Do you know this? For I have only recently come to this realization. It goes on and on whether we are good or brave or courageous or fierce or heroic or tired and or worn out or sad or simply craving stillness. The shelter it offers doesn’t depend on our outward displays of worthiness. It turns and turns, seasons change, weather patterns roll over us. Happy news comes, difficult news follows, and nothing we are doing is going to change that. Though being good almost broke me, physically and emotionally, giving it up has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I cringe to admit it, but it’s been harder for me even than my experience of leaving an abusive family relationship. Goodness almost destroyed my heart and yet it’s taken all my courage to let it go.
Much to my surprise, when I stopped being good, my life didn’t become bad. It turns out this is a false binary. My life became a little disheveled in some places but slowly and surely it’s also becoming more joyful. I’ve become a better friend because I’m kinder to myself and my own needs, less prone to cutting myself out of every equation. Laying down the pursuit of goodness has meant that I had to let go of two jobs which were deeply meaningful to my community but which were taking every last bit of my physical and emotional health. Letting go of good means I’ve started volunteering for things I can actually do, instead of things I think I should do. I’ve stopped being the textbook version of a good daughter but the truth is, no matter how hard I have worked to make my own health and stability look attractive and pleasing, and myself worthy of fighting for as a result, I’m no longer willing to commit that much emotional energy to something with such a small chance of return on investment. This doesn’t mean I’m mean or terrible. Remember the false binary? It means I’m ok with looking wild and unkempt to others if it means my heart and body have enough space to bloom and to grow deep, beautiful roots.
Goodness has its place. All of those perfect grey houses with perfect green lawns work perfectly for some people. Clean lines and weed-free gardens can offer a respite from chaotic lives, jobs that require a huge emotional investment, or complicated family details for which there aren’t any perfect words. I get it. I’m not at all suggesting that my newfound freedom is everyone’s cup of tea. There are years for goodness, just like there are years which thrive on religion, years which grow better on routines and well-executed schedules. And there are years for which goodness feels like an insult, a Sisyphean boulder that finally breaks us. You know what I love? It turns out I love spaciousness. I love a day with room to stare out into rainy skies and dream. I love a slow journaling session in which my heart can fully unwind. I love an unhurried pace which allows time for new recipes and the delicious sentences in the novel or memoir on my nightstand. I love the conversations I have with my girls on their school commute and how the car smells each morning like fresh coffee and freshly-woken faces. I love the kind of conversations I have with my partner over weekend breakfasts at the kitchen counter. I love time spent drawing out my garden plans on graph paper and finding ways to make our relatively new house look established and quirky. I love work that adds predictability to my days and requires creativity I don’t know if I have.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves
(Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)
I finally know what my body loves, and I want more of it. Goodness has never fed me like spaciousness does.
From out my window just now comes the cry of a hawk, swooping and falling through the rain-washed sky. The deep purple and shell-streaked hellebores on the shady side of my house are opening. I don’t want to carry the slick weight of goodness anymore. “There is time,” the grass scented air is calling. “There is a wild, mossy world full of Daphne and clover, and there is still time to love it.”
Take heart, I say to myself.