Photo credit: Abe Louise Young
I saw a line from an iconic poem by Mary Oliver in typewriter font on a bumper sticker: “honk if you’re letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I didn’t consider the real-world auditory impact before I bought it. I’m a poet and writing coach, and just thought, “Oh yes, I need this.” I’m glad I didn’t think it through. The simple act of slapping the sticker on my bumper led me to revise my relationship with startle response, strangers, kinship, and noise. It’s opened a gap for sacredness in my ordinary day.
“Wild Geese” is Oliver’s totemic poem. You’ll probably recognize the first lines– “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…”
The poem offers the reader absolution for human flaws with a warm welcome. The bumper sticker is a poetry inside joke, an inclusive wink for a secret, not-so-secret club. It’s also an invitation to express exuberance and spontaneity even if you’ve never heard the lines before. Got a soft animal body?Are you letting it love what it loves? Yes? Honk your heart out!
I can be sitting at a red light anywhere in Austin or driving down the road and all of a sudden someone in the car behind me will just start blaring, leaning on the horn. HONK! HOOOOOONK! HONKHONKHONKHONK! It’s jarring and makes me jump. The first few times it happened I bristled and turned around with a glare, asking, “What?!” And then realized the people in the car behind me were beaming, smiling and waving. Ah. Oops. Yes. Joy.
This happens many times. I jump, then relax and look behind me…a woman raising her hands in a cheer. Two people waving maniacally, then dancing in their car seats with jazz hands. An eager nod and grin from an elderly man who makes four more little taps on the horn like a trumpet. He is letting the soft animal of his body love what he loves! Once on the IH-35 highway, someone honked long then yelled “Yaaaas” out of their moonroof.
This sheer jubilant beauty of others expressing themselves meant I had to change my instinctive reaction to being honked at. I’d be raining on my own parade if I continued to mouth, “What?!?” and look around indignantly. But how?
This has been the greatest mindfulness exercise I could ever have stumbled across. I’ve lived in a Buddhist monastic temple, been to decades of therapy, and have a lot of experience coaxing my body to feel safety instead of danger, peace instead of agitation. Yet for personal growth, little has compared to greeting the sound of blaring car horns with thanks.
I had to soothe my overactive startle response. This took practicing deep, slow breathing while driving, observing my body and inserting a pause between feeling and action. Then, the pause came earlier, between the loud sound and the startled feeling. Then the feeling of startle or alarm just disappeared. It went completely away, which fills me with wonder. I’m sure sometimes people honk at my car because I am always slow to go after a stoplight turns green. I make unwise spontaneous lane changes and look at my phone while driving. But I am learning to take every honk as a love honk.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, it felt like those of us who weren’t essential workers were suddenly confined to car, house, car, house, house, house, computer, computer, house, car. The joys of mixing and mingling with others abruptly stopped. We huddled with the ones we had, if we were lucky to live with people. I remember walking outside and realizing birdsong was filling the neighborhood, bird voices so much louder with the highways quiet. Sometimes life felt strange and beautiful. Sometimes the isolation felt like soul poison. Even the air outside seemed filled with deadly pathogens exhaled by other people. The prattle of human conversation and activity in public spaces evaporated, while birdsong got louder and louder for a while.
Talking to strangers had been part of my daily spiritual practice and the quarantine ended those serendipitous chats. I got a wild hair one night and decided I needed a custom license plate. I spent an evening scrolling the Texas DMV site and testing out words, finding that POEMS was available. I paid an extra $70 for car registration and chose a Keep Texas Wild plate with a brightly-colored hummingbird sucking from a honeysuckle flower next to the word POEMS.
When I screwed the new plates to my bumper a month later, I said a little prayer that it would be a conversation-starter. I hoped people would tell me about the poems they knew and ask me if I knew any poems to tell them.
It worked. In parking lots, gas stations, at the carwash, standing six feet apart, conversations started up again when my car enigmatically proclaimed POEMS from front and back bumper. I had to expand the variety of verse I have memorized, so I could choose the right lines for the person. An ampule of pure happiness opened. For me, happiness is a feeling of authenticity and creativity mixed with connection and belonging. It had been in scarce supply in the pandemic shutdown but came sidling back in.
A near universal theme in my work is helping people get to more freedom, ease, and empowerment in telling their stories–regardless of genre or prior literary success. Almost everyone could use some support when claiming their power. The gift of creativity is starting anew, trying to say things which are both true and necessary, in the way that only you can say them. I often read clients’ own work out loud to them, pointing out the memorable phrase, the opportunity to go deeper. Sometimes, these conversations become about life itself, or the client’s particular life. Everyone overcomes something to come to voice. I’m endlessly curious about what that is.
I talk about words all day long but am not bored of it after working. I still want to talk about words with loved ones and strangers. Unexpected one-on-one conversations feel sacred and full of potency, gold serendipitous communion, brief and emblematic. In a world saturated by advertising language, our own stories are a relieving province of honesty, ideally selling nothing, giving the heart away.
The talks with strangers that my car’s declarations inspire, offer a sweet window into the life history of others. Folks sometimes talk about the teachers they had in school or vividly remember writing a poem long ago. Once, a veteran who often sits outside of the Speedy Stop convenience store in my neighborhood asking for food saw my license plate. He then stood up with a proud posture and recited Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” from memory in a resounding baritone.
He transformed in that moment from petitioner for help into provider of literature. I desperately wish every human were housed and fed, and believe it is possible and imperative. I also see that people without houses provide a gift to others when they ask for help: the opportunity to be of service, to experience generosity. The chance to offer food or support is a valuable experience of selfhood and is a connection with our basic survival needs as soft animals–our essential sameness.
If you’ve ever written a poem, I invite you to pull it out and share it with someone else. Honk, burn your candles, give away your gems, spend the best words. A striking thing about deep wells like creativity, compassion, and love is that they are inexhaustible: we can’t give away too many images, stories, emotions, or words of affirmation. We can’t ever strive for too much kinship.
The ending of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” says it:
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.