There’s a Mary Oliver poem I love, Wild Geese, that begins:
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.
In last week’s conversation about my ongoing dance with performance anxiety, my harp teacher told me, “You can’t hide in your room, playing alone and unheard, refusing to play for others because you fear making a mistake. You do not have to play perfectly to be worthy to play.”
I grew up with no such allowances for mistakes. Nothing other than perfect was acceptable. There were no successive approximations of success, no room for less than perfect attempts when learning something new, no tolerance for expressing that some never-before-tried task was difficult to learn and hard to do. I was 40 before I realized that I didn’t have to already know how to do something before I could try doing it, and 52 before I dared to stand strong with compassion for becoming a beginner, and being inept, so I could begin harp lessons, so I could learn to play this instrument of my dreams.
But now, my harp teacher is telling me, that yes, we strive for the perfect performance, we work towards that ideal, but that the most important part of performing is connecting and communicating with others by sharing our music, by playing the very best we can play at that moment, on that day, no matter how imperfectly.
“You do not have to play perfectly to be worthy to play,” my teacher said. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” and share that which you love with others.
We had our last recorder ensemble class last Tuesday night – our traditional pot luck dinner at our teacher’s home, and one last playing of the semester’s music. One of our ensemble members is gravely ill. She’s refused aggressive treatment, and instead chosen palliative care; it’s more than likely that this evening will be the last time we play together.
When I walked into the recorder ensemble class two years ago I felt an immediate connection with her, as though our souls already knew each other. Her warmth and wit and spirit have cheered me on as I’ve inexpertly tweedled and tooted my way through the past four semesters. She’s often asked me when she was going to hear me play my harp, and I’ve always laughed her question away as something much too improbable to consider.
I arrived early that Tuesday night, and she arrived not long afterwards. We spent a long moment together on the steps, with the looking into each others eyes saying all that we did not have words for. Then as she got settled in the den, I got my recorder teacher’s harp from its corner of the living room, sat down across from my friend, and played.
I played two Scottish tunes I love, two tunes that express grief and longing and bravery in the face of leaving one’s home for an unknown shore. My fingers slipped a time or two, and my left hand played a new chord progression in the place of the one I always practice. But this performance, at this moment, on this night, was perfect.
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.*
[*The complete poem, Wild Geese, is in the collection Dream Work, by Mary Oliver. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.]