When the box spring squeals at four in the morning and jolts me into wakefulness—or when the sleeping pill wears off too early and I am dragged just so slowly by life’s tide back onto the shore of Day—I like to pretend God (or the universe, if it’s too early to say God) is trying to turn me into Mary Oliver. Someone patient and attentive—someone who can enjoy a thousand mornings.

Of course when the real me checks the time on her iPhone, the first words on her lips are profanities and not poetry; and she has enjoyed about three in total of these thousand early mornings. Still, I like to pretend.

Being up early is not all bad. There’s coffee, and a nice kind of quiet, and that early-morning sinusitis that blocks out the still-lingering raccoon smell in the apartment. There are (theoretically) sunrises, which are obstructed from aforementioned awesome apartment by the reigning four-year champion for the title of World’s Ugliest Tree.

And then, in the summer, there’s jogging with the fellow members of the local secret society I’ve recently been inducted into—not the Early Risers; we’re far more interesting and secretive and troubled than they are. No, this would be the Up Way Too Damn Early club, in which most of us probably have diagnosable conditions we pass off as “discipline.” The best part of this is the secret sign we give each other, kind of like the upside-down peace sign bikers give to each other (but not to mopeds or bicycles, God forbid), which we would never give to mere Early Risers. Ours is a little smirk, a glimmer in the eye that congratulates the other: I see you, too, are kicking asphalt at six in the morning. Well done, disciplined comrade!

They don’t know that I’m a fake. I never would have thrown my lot in with them voluntarily, you see, but I do enjoy the congratulatory eye-twinkle and the weaker rays of a sun not yet high enough to beat down upon the backs of the already-sweating. I’m no 6 AM jogger by choice—and no Mary Oliver, either, though if I could choose to be her I would do it every time.

There’s a kind of wanting to be another person—or perhaps specifically an artist—that seems less interested in absorbing all their talent and more interested in believing what they believe, down to one’s very core. It wants to believe in the “unrealized Perfection [that] art seeks” (that’s Emil Brunner); it wants to prophesy.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Mary Oliver speaks of the mystery behind how she wrote one of her most well-beloved poems, “Wild Geese.” She says it had started out as an exercise in form, but that the words were just “there in me . . . and where that came from, I don’t know.”

These words, unbeknownst to her at the time, would speak deeply to many.

“You do not have to be good,” the poem begins. “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.”

Something in me flinched the first time it read those words. The first lines are lovely, yes—who doesn’t want to hear the good news that they do not have to be perfect, or even good? Who doesn’t want a reprieve from that thirsty repentance that put them in the desert on their knees? But those last ones—those are striking and offensive. Let my body love what it loves?

What good can come from letting the body love what it loves? I thought flesh loved evil, that spirit was pure and body impure and to be done away with. (Sound familiar? Could we call up a hundred seeming proof texts from the Bible for that idea, a hundred indelible memories of sermons that somehow left that impression?)

So I remained a cynic, filed Mary Oliver under “interesting but dangerous” and let the poem be for some years. Still, those words lodged themselves in some subconscious place and did not leave me.

You do not have to be good.

There’s a difference between wanting to hear, between enjoying in some vague aesthetic way, and believing. I found and still find those words incredible, both in the sense that they provoke wonder and make me think of Christ, and in that I persist in disbelieving them.

“Perfection was actualized solely once, a single event,” a theologically-minded friend once told me when he saw me struggling with perfectionism and insomnia. I nodded and laughed, thought yes and amen but carried on trying to produce perfect papers for school (even now I am typing about two words per hour), maintain a perfect apartment (this is a losing battle; the ants have moved in for the summer), stack my schedule with a perfect balance of work and play (who in human history has done this?)—all the while not sleeping. All the while not believing this could be true.

You do not have to walk on your knees…

All the while trying to live a blameless spiritual life, all the while trying to read just a chapter of the Bible every day, all the while trying to humble myself as if the agency to do such a thing were mine anyhow.

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

All the while believing that outward progress was real and not just to be hoped for but required, that the Christian life was an uphill battle I had to fight, but that I’d arrive on a mountaintop in the end, covered in my own sweat and blood.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body…

All the while exercising as a kind of penance for beer and cookies, all the while (still) not sleeping.

…love what it loves.

All the while forgetting my first love, who is and was and will be God, who has me and loved me first, in whose peace alone my body can love sweet sleep (which is fundamentally a not-doing, not-being-good, not-seeking-perfection but letting-everything-go).

And here is something strange, a parable to follow the poem: worn out from all the effort of trying to preach this gospel to myself so I could write it down here, despairing at the mostly-blank page but with the words (and the feeling) you do not have to be good echoing in my exhausted mind while I laughed into a pillow, I had a nap for the first time in four months.

This was yesterday. The law may yet lose its chokehold on me. Christ is mercy.