Discover more from Initiation Writes
Wild geese and mustard seeds
A poem and a parable, to remind us we're not alone
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. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. 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. – Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
Last week, I wrote about the painful experience of watching my child get stitched up in the ER on Mother’s Day. So many of you, as well as other friends in our lives, reached out privately to say: Me too. My child too. I am so grateful for these stories.
Of course, there is no part of me that takes any delight in knowing that other people suffer. Especially children. But it is sometimes the only medicine we have to offer each other, when the wound is what Tara Brach calls “severed belonging” — a sense that we have been kicked out of the shared human experience, somehow.
When other parents tell us that they, too, have watched helplessly as their child breaks an arm jumping off the same couch they’ve jumped off a thousand times, or had a weird hard Mother’s Day that wasn’t what they’d hoped for, either – this shared hurt heals something in all of us.
Thanks for reading Initiation Writes ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
There is a Buddhist parable that talks about this phenomenon, particularly as it relates to the pain of knowing we cannot protect our children from sickness or worse. It is sometimes known as the story of Kisa Gotami, or the Parable of the Mustard Seed. (Bluey fans may also recognize this story as similar in structure to the “Bumpy and the Wise Old Wolfhound” episode, which is likely based on this parable.)
Below, I offer my own short retelling of this old story. I also invite you to share your own stories of Complicated Motherhood in the comments.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
A woman named Kisa Gotami has lost her child. She goes to a wise Buddhist sage. She asks the wise one, “How can I survive something so terrible, much less heal from it? I cannot go on.”
The wise one says, “Go and collect three mustard seeds from the village, from homes that have never known suffering. When you have those, bring them back to me, and we'll make something with it to help you through.”
Kisa Gotami is elated. Finally, a solution!
She goes to every home in the village. And yet every person she meets in the village informs her, sadly: “I cannot give you a mustard seed.” They tell her, “My daughter was deathly ill recently.” Or, “My elderly father just passed away.” Or, “We lost half our crops to drought last summer, and we were terribly hungry.”
As she makes her way through the village, sharing her own vulnerable story and receiving the stories of her neighbors in turn – stories she never would have heard, had she not had her own loss – she has an awakening. The cure for her broken heart, she realizes, isn’t one that can really be made from mustard seeds. Nothing can restore the child that has been taken from her. But healing can still come in the form of the right kind of story – a story that can help we who are grieving to re-locate ourselves in what Mary Oliver calls “the family of things” once again.
Learning this, Kisa Gotami goes on to become one of the enlightened sages of the age in her own right, helping others to have more compassion for others, as well as themselves.
This week, in the comments, I’d love to hear your stories. How was your Mother’s Day? What would your ideal Mother’s Day entail? How might these two answers be different?
And: would your ideal re-visioning of the day involve marking Mother’s Day in the traditional way at all, or reframing it in some way, in order to restore a sense of your “place in the family of things”?