What Are You Clinging To? Mary Oliver and the Practice of Letting Go

What Are You Clinging To? Mary Oliver and the Practice of Letting Go May 12, 2022

Mary Oliver Snow Geese Letting Go
Joshua Woroniecki/Unsplash

Where do you carry tension in your body?

For as long as I can remember, my tension has been held in my upper back, my shoulders, and in my jaw. Whenever I feel antsy or out of control, my body tells me, much faster than my brain does, through the clenching up and aching of these muscles. It’s almost like my body waving this big flag telling me there’s something I need to pay attention to.

In recent years, whenever I become aware of this body tension, I slow down and I ask myself a simple question:

“What are you trying to control right now?”

Because more often than not, that’s what’s happening. I’m trying to control my emotions or response to an event, I’m feeling antsy because I’m witnessing something that doesn’t meet my definition of “right,” or I’m simply lost in the sauce of life. When I feel out of control, my body tenses up.

Which means I’m tense a lot – because I’m never in control. None of us are.


Loving and Letting Go of the Wild Geese

Mary Oliver has a wonderful poem titled “Snow Geese” (one of my absolute favorites), in which she writes about watching a flock of beautiful snow geese fly across the sky. After describing the magnificent way they appear golden as they catch the sun, she writes,

“The geese

flew on,

I have never seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.

Maybe I won’t.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters

is that, when I saw them,

I saw them

as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.”


This poem reminds me of the impermanence we experience in life – some things last, but most things don’t. And no matter how much we might like to cling to them – to friends, relationships, job titles, possessions, belief systems, desires for clear-cut answers and obvious right-or-wrongs – no matter how much we might like to grab hold and hang on tight, doing so only builds the tension within us of pretending we’re in control.

Our “task,” as Mary Oliver calls it, is to learn to love what is in front of us and then lovingly let it continue on its way. While we might prefer to grasp onto it, to cling to it, to take control over it for our own sense of safety and security and pleasure, this will only twist us into knots of our own making and lead us into illusions of our own conjuring.

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!

What a task

to ask

of anything, or anyone,

yet it is ours,

and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.”

Where do you carry tension in your body?

What are you clinging to?


On May 19th, you are invited to join me for my next journaling event, this time guided by the poetry of Mary Oliver.

More information to sign up can be found here.

About Andrew Lang
Andrew Lang is an educator in Tacoma, Washington, an alumnus of Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, and author of the forthcoming book, Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life. For the past nine years, he has led workshops on contemplative spirituality and community development throughout the Pacific Northwest. You can read more about the author here.
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