‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

Here is another poem by Mary Oliver that I love. As always, her language is fresh and deft, and simple in the way that wisdom is always simple. There is almost something Hemingway-esque about its simplicity.

I think that this poem is a very beautiful description of what it is like to discover one’s vocation. A vocation is something you “[have] to do”, something you will gravitate toward despite the “bad advice” and the “old tug” of those around you pulling you back or in other directions.

And there is always a moment where you must “[leave] their voices behind”, and when you do, the “stars [begin] to burn”. Suddenly, you can hear your own voice and it “[keeps] you company”. I love the description of the burning stars here; the world is brighter, richer, and more beautiful when you are doing the thing you were born to do. The burning stars deliver a sense of beauty, but they also make me think of the idea of destiny or fate — as though the stars are burning with pleasure that their decree is being carried out.

A vocation could be anything: it could be being a writer, a painter, a mother, a priest, a good friend… Whatever it is, it is the “only thing you could do” and yours is the “only life you could save”. I firmly believe that everybody on this earth has a vocation — a thing that they were born to do — the “only thing” they could do. But it always takes courage to do it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

  • Clarissa Mathews

    This poem really hurts me :'( . Soon, I am going to have to make some decisions that will result in leaving all that bad advise and voices behind….I know it is the right thing to do, but it still hurts.

    • MarlaS

      do it. I have wasted years and years of my life catering to the selfish out of love and strong empathy. you are not a doormat. you are a full human being and deserving of the same understanding you freely give others. it is very hard to against a selfless nature, but if you love people to spiritual death you are of use to NOONE, not even yourself.

  • Amy Mooney Stickel

    This poem can mean so many things. When I read your review and thought about the vocation meaning, it had never occured to me. But yeah, its that too. Listening to your inner calling. I’ve read this poem a thousand times and for me it applies to making a choice to stop making bad choices, to walk away from addiction (of any sort, drugs, money, bad relationships) and take control of the only thing you have any control over.. you. And to hear your voice for the first time, or the first time in a long while, is comforting. Its meant a lot of things to me at various times in my life. Thanks for this blog and I am enjoying your take on things.

  • Pablo

    My reading of this poem Is toward a severing of family constraints. The tug at the ankles is familiar, an “old” tug, The voices are those of codependency, insisting on help, needy and demanding, not resisting the speaker’s choice of vocation. The speaker must break away from the control of siblings or parents.