‘You do not have to be good’ – a tribute to Mary Oliver, poet

‘You must not ever give anyone else the responsibility for your life’


Mary Oliver, U S poet, Pulitzer prize winner and inspiring human being, died on 17th January aged 83.  One of her most famous poems, “Wild Geese” begins:

‘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 do not have to be good – Every time I read that sentence, my shoulders drop in relief.  For over 12 years now, my intention has been to become more ‘real,’ rather than ‘good’ and for the last 5 years the poems of Mary Oliver have kept me company.  Like many others, I’ve been brought up to be ‘good’ and not to attend to my needs or pay attention to what I want in life.  As a result, I would not ask directly for what I wanted and often didn’t even know what I wanted.  Instead my tendency was towards the ‘passive aggressive’ approach: ‘I won’t tell you what I need but I’ll make it clear how disappointed I am that you didn’t work it out through ESP and do it anyway.’

But I’m changing!

Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Journey’ is that call to listen to yourself.  It begins:

‘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…’


For some of us the bad advice, the voices calling, are mostly external and for some its all inside our heads but those voices, that advice can be so strong, so undermining of our confidence in our own voice, our own experience.

Its painful recognising our patterns of response and changing them but it is also liberating and delicious when we realise we are not trapped!

Mary Oliver was a gay woman who found her life partner, Molly Malone Cooke in 1964,  ‘I took one look and fell, hook and tumble’.  They lived together for over 40 years before Molly died in 2005.  After she died, in ‘A Pretty Song’ Mary writes ‘From the complications of loving you, I think there is no end or return.’

Mary Oliver never explicitly wrote about this side of her life but I would recommend  a read from written by Jeanna Kadlec.  Jeanna remarks how Mary Oliver’s poems gave her hope as a young gay woman:

‘For me, someone who grew up in the evangelical church, the experience of reading “Wild Geese” has often been about receiving permission to desire within my own body: I do not have to be good; I do not have to repent.

‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’

Whatever our faith/non-faith position is we all have an idea of what ‘good’ is that matters to us. It might be being good ‘morally’ or good in relationships or ‘following God”, or changing the world for the better in one way or another.  But unless we begin by seeking authenticity, the ‘goodness’ lark will either whiplash back on us (what a hypocrite/lousy mother/shit friend I am, etc|)  or the whip will land on others (they ‘should’ be…) .  So instead when I remember, I practice being real, bringing awareness and acceptance of myself as I actually am, having compassion for this human being here at this moment. It’s a life’s work.

For Mary Oliver, her work was to love and be amazed by this world.  It was mostly the natural world but not always.  In the poem ‘Singapore,’  Mary Oliver finds herself in the airport toilet when she notices a woman cleaning ashtrays in the toilet bowl:

‘Disgust argued in my stomach

And I felt in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it….’

But she stays and then,

‘When the woman turned I could not answer her face.

Her beauty and embarrassment struggled together and

neither could win.

She smiled and I smiled.  What kind of nonsense is this?

Everyone needs a job.’

And later


‘I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.

And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop

And fly down the river.

This probably won’t happen.

But maybe it will.

If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.


Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only

The light that can shine out of a life.  I mean

The way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,

The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean,

The way this poem is filled with trees and birds.’


I want to finish with one of Mary Oliver’s poems in its entirety.  It is called “When I am among the Trees”.  Trees don’t worry about being ‘good’,  they simply ‘are’ what they are, with their roots deep down in the soil connecting with this world and their branches and leaves reaching out to the light.  If you haven’t already done so, try standing against a tree for 20 minutes, feeling the bark supporting your back, looking up through rich layers of leaves or perhaps bare branches sharp against the sky, smelling the air, listening to sounds, breathing. Its a gift.


When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”


Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the light you have shone on my life.



Breaking Free and Shedding a Skin – Part 2

It’s worth it!

Sometimes in order to break free, to grow, we need to shed the skin of our lives. Snakes shed their skins as they grow.  Maybe they have something to teach us.

Back in October 2017, after 23 years, Tim and I decided that we’d stop being a vicar and vicar’s wife.  In April this year we left an entire way of life, a community and the vicarage where we’d lived for the last 10 years.  In March, after further reading on how snakes shed their skins, I wrote the poem below.




The skin has come off.

It lies there coiled on the floor.


The hardest bit was starting

At the head.

Rubbing at 30 years of habit.

Worrying it, dislodging

thick protective certainties.

Finding the sharp necessary stones

To pierce the old skin.


That first breaking!

That relief!

                      Beginning to breathe easily                     .

Smarting with the rawness.

Then, seeing more clearly

How trapped I’ve been.

Rage rising

Spitting out of me, spurring me on.


Tearing, scratching, I look around for help,

Some cannot see the problem,

Others irritate and poke.

But there are those who celebrate,

Thank you!

Affirming, soothing, loving,

They apply a gentle pressure for me

To pull against.


Then the slow, slow, moving

Wrinkle by wrinkle out of the casing.

Cell by cell

Whole sections peeling off gloriously

While others snap and tear.

The tail snatches at the last of the skin

Trying to find a purchase

But it’s too late. I’m out.

I am out.


I stretch and feel the rippling flex of flesh

No tightness at the eyes.

Or pressure on the chest.

The vast expanse of ‘new’

Is fresh and frightening.


The old skin lies useless,

dry, translucent,

Beautiful designs

Etched into the calcified cells.


I need to rest and hide awhile.

I leave the old skin behind.


I don’t look back.




Breaking Free and Shedding a Skin – Part 1

Do you ever get that feeling? You want to break free, move-on but you feel trapped, you don’t know how to make the break, what to do.  Four years ago, I was in that place.

In November 2014, I wrote:  I wake today and the voices come from all directions in disarray.  I should have, why didn’t I, he’s so much better,  I feel cramped,  I feel trapped,  I’m not trapped,  I’m fortunate, lucky.  I’m stressed but I can’t be stressed,  I’m tired but I have no right to be,  I’m a failure but I was given all the chances. 

In December 2014 I wrote this poem:



I was down and low.

My life an untidy room with

No Door.

But inside I’m growing

Like Alice.

The room is getting too small.

Way too small.

It has become an old skin

That has to go.

I shake my head and start to scratch.



I didn’t know how my life was going to change or how I would shed this skin but it dawned on me that I had shed skins before. That last one with all the intricate interplay of lines – the choppy, changing patterns of young motherhood,  a stressed partner with his hair cropped short, religious certainties, Duplo bricks, primary school, children’s boots.  The smell of my daughter’s breath in her first bed.

My skin.

And now this one. By the end of 2014, my last child had turned 18, my partner had a beard and long hair and was sorting his stress through mindfulness. I’d been creating drama, organising alternative evening services in church, working with kids, chasing teenagers, worrying late at night, chafing at the theology of church, angsting at my age and lack of income.

Youtube videos tell me that to help a snake get started, give it a nice long bath or some E45 to soften the skin.

My preparation had been to practice mindfulness for the previous 3 years.  I’d started it because I wanted to ‘fall awake’ to my life (Jon Kabat-Zinn).  The thing about ‘falling awake’ is that you wake up both to the good and the bad.  Fortunately the non-judgement and compassion of mindfulness softened me enough to allow me to look at what was going on.  But where to start?

With snakes the shedding has to begin with the head.  They push their heads against any hard-scratchy surface to get some leverage, some motion.

I chose some sessions with a psychotherapist.

Snakes can get vulnerable and aggressive during the process.



I’d been brought up in an ex-pat patriarchal setting.  There were 2 cardinal rules for a woman:

  • Other people come first and
  • Never openly confront or upset people even if they’re screwing you over – its rude.

Becoming a Christian and a vicar’s wife re-enforced these. Jesus said ‘love others as you love yourself’ but the second part of the sentence always got guillotined.

As I became more aware of this, the irritation grew and the skin felt tighter.  And tighter.

For several years I’d been angry with the Church’s attitude to women but now I also woke up to the realisation that all talk about God was male.  And I’d bought into this for over 30 years.

The shed had begun and it began in my head.

I was waking up.





Moving House mindfully…. sometimes

3 Weeks ago we moved house. 3 weeks ago my husband stopped being a vicar. 3 weeks ago we walked into our own home, we walked off the edge of our old life… Here are some mindful and not mindful moments …..

Always going home,
Always planting the seed
Always opening, allowing
The new growing shoot.
Never so sure what it will be
No one
Telling me
Who I am.
Not even me.

I’m fine
It’s just
The others.

The sellers will renege
They’ll use my clumsy words against me.
The buyers of our flat will drop out
Or drop the price.
The estate agent doesn’t like me.
The solicitor doesn’t care.
The neighbour will block me.
The other neighbour
the basement one,
Will throw a wobbly and ruin everything.

All this running through
My nightmare mind.

I sit still and notice
There is a common thread
And underneath I hear a child crying
And I know
That no-one else can comfort her
But me.

I’m fine
And this is life.


In our new pond the tadpoles
Are seething.
My anxieties fix on visions of frog city
So I collect some in an empty yoghurt pot
And throw them on the raised border
But I cannot shake the shame of murder.
I go to buy goldfish to eat them instead
But apparently the goldfish are ‘not ready’
and anyway they don’t eat tadpoles.
Visions of garden frog hell encompass me.

And then I laugh

Is that as bad as my visions of hell can get?

Later I’m told not to worry
The tadpoles will eat one another
If nothing else.

Apparently I do not need
To interfere.
Simply allow life.

Well that’s a thought.



It was Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch christian who ended up in Ravensbruck Concentration camp during the Second World War for helping Jewish people, who said:

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

On Good Friday this year, we’re going to follow two people who were there on Jesus’s walk to the cross and his death: Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to help carry Jesus’ cross, and Mary, Jesus’s mother, who stayed with him and watched him die. We will also explore two modern counterparts to Simon and Mary. These modern stories are fictional but they’re based on my own and friends’ experiences.

Modern Simon or Simone as I’ve called her is a carer having to look after a sick old man, Bill. About 12 years ago I knew a beautiful free-spirited elderly woman called Marian who succumbed to dementia and I cried when I had to drive her to the care home where she was to be locked in. The character of Bill is based on her.

Modern Mary is a woman who is told her baby will not survive after birth. Years ago I read a newspaper article where a couple in hospital, were given their newborn baby, told she would not survive more than an hour and left there. A good friend of mine who has suffered a great deal in the process of seeking to have children, helped in editing this piece. Another good friend who knows about suffering will play the part.

If you’re in Oxford please come along. There are four actors: 2 are professional, 1 is at drama college and 1 is simply the right person for the part. Our church music group will sing some gentle songs to accompany this.

The drama will take place from 1pm to 1.30pm at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, Oxford OX3 8LH

There will be a Good Friday service in the church from 2pm for those who wish to stay.

poster 2018 V of P pdf


For the first and probably last time in my life, I was invited to preach a sermon a few weeks ago and the subject was the ‘Wedding at Cana’, a story told by the gospel writer, John about a particular wedding where Jesus was said to turn 120-180 gallons of water into wine…. And I decided to speak on Wine and the Creative life.

For many people ‘miracles’ are problematic and turning water into wine raises some practical issues 😊. However, if you’re happy to view it as you might one of the great myths and enjoy the story and the meaning that John wants to convey then this is a wonderful story about looking to live life to the FULL. It’s also funny.

This story helped me to find my own sense of value as a creative person having constantly struggled with the feeling that ‘being creative’ is just a nice ‘extra’ and insignificant compared with really important things like ‘helping people’ and ‘saving lives.’ Yet what are we saving peoples’ lives for? Just to eat ‘bread and water’?

No matter how poor we are, whether financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually etc – we need joy, we need pleasure, we need to be creative, we need richness in our lives, we need hope. This is what makes life worth living.

The audio below comes to about 16 minutes and includes the reading of the gospel story. I hope you enjoy it and find encouragement here.

My beautiful virgin year – 2018

Here we are at the gate of the New Year. I wrote the poem below in response to the day ahead but at this moment it also resonates in me for the year.


A vast expanse of sandy beach
Scoured clean by the night tide.

I do not want to step on it.
My beautiful virgin day.

As a child, there’d be no pause.
Rolling, stamping, jumping,
I’d imprint myself, careless, free and thoughtless
Across that swathe of sand.

But I have spoilt too many days
To run at this one.

I take off my shoes. The beauty
burns my feet. I pause.

And bow to all that is to come.

‘EMMI’ Oxford Premier & the future

Having filmed “Emmi” in Oxford it was fabulous to show it at the Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road on Saturday 1st July. It was a particular pleasure to see London-based Natalie Martins who played the teenage Emmi. Look out for her – great actress and lovely person to work with []

Around 50-60 people came to celebrate with us including the oldest and the youngest members of the cast. Barbara Deane turned 90 the week after we filmed Emmi and Isis was 3 months old.

THE FUTURE – As well as showing in festivals we’re also actively looking for ways it could be used with anyone working with teenage girls/families. Please see my film page for more details about the film and get in touch if you have ideas and would like to know more.
Some of the fab team 🙂

THANK YOU to everyone who supported the process of making the film and all those who could come to celebrate with us!

We’ve now been selected by 11 film festivals on Film Freeway and had various reviews. Here are some clips from them:

“Emmi’s” strengths lie in its atmosphere — claustrophobic space in apartment corridors, a tense anxiousness relayed by sound design and wordless facial responses.”
Largo Film Festival Reviewer 1

‘Gritty British indie dramas are becoming rarer, having been popular in the early 2000’s and it’s wonderful to see another being produced for the short film circuit …. Stunning acting and writing throughout.’
Largo Film Festival Reviewer 3

Fantastic screenwriting – I love it when a scene tells the audience what they’ll need to know without them feeling like they’ve been hit over the head with the information.
Elliott Smith – Zen Shorts Review

“‘Emmi’ delivers a very simple yet thoroughly suggestive story.”
Film strip international film festival – Romania – review

‘Regardless of being feature length or short films, it’s a rare thing to truly challenge an audience. More so to lay down the gauntlet to its audience and not provide all the answers. ’
Dan Marshall, Cardiff Mini Film Festival

“Writer Susie Stead clearly has the social conscience of a Ken Loach, and her admirably spare screenplay leaves plenty of room for viewers to fill in the blanks…. Carslaw paints his film in muted palette of steely greys, and the overall tone combines social realism with hints of horror. The editing and music score, also by Carslaw, are very well done. Overall Emmi is a fine short and a great calling card.” Simon Dillon
Simon Dillon –


On Saturday I went to Cardiff Mini Film Festival: my first experience of a film festival and my first experience of Cardiff. I had in mind big posters everywhere, people queuing up to watch the films, loud music, panache. Cardiff has a great buzz feeling on a summer Saturday afternoon. There was plenty going on – hen parties, homeless people, fun-lovers. There were however no festival posters up despite the fact that there was a lot on offer at 3 different central venues. The “Big Top” where “Emmi” was to be shown, turned out to be the upper room of a pub, beautifully laid out in ‘big top’ style with rows of gilt coloured chairs and a few funky sofas, to accommodate about 50 people. My first hit with reality came when no more than 10 people showed. That included volunteers and the projectionist!

The quality was there if not the audience. Andy (Director) and I spent a fascinating 2 hours watching a range of short films. The ones that remain with me are: a wistful young man disappearing into a childhood photo in order to see his mother one more time, a surreal one with a man swallowing rocks and jumping off cliffs, a carefully shot film with sharply distinguished shapes and colours about an OCD woman, and a ‘super power’ one with young man who discovers when he’s 18 that he’s one of a group who can go back in time – but only once in his lifetime and there are always consequences…

At the end a woman came and thanked me for my film and said it made her cry. Result!

We came back on Sunday for the Film Festival Awards Ceremony at the ‘Tramshed’. There was a decent turn out and a delightful presenter with downplayed humour. One of the people giving out the awards had been chosen to give the evening a ‘weirdness’ twist. Before opening an envelope he’d bellow out things like “Anyone here ever murdered anyone and got away with it?”

Sadly our film did not win. A romantic comedy beat us. However, while the judge was clearly biased and wrong …. We coped. I’m buoyed by an acutely observed wonderful review that Dan Marshall, one of the Cardiff team wrote for our film. I’ve copied it in full below:


There’s something deliberately unsettling about the first few moments of Emmi. Graceful piano notes chime as we look up into the sky. “Emmi” the short presents in its first titles, there’s even a little heart to adorn the “I”. While it may not be sudden there’s a gear shift in tone. The music gives way to the dull passing of cars on the duel carriageway. The camera pans to a high rise, the stark monolith towers into the grey sky. Then passed the hum-drum of traffic to the grimy underpass with it’s rusty railings and stained walls. Yet, in spite of it’s visual repugnance, a lone tenant decides to brave it. Just at the point of no return hoodies appear at the other end. It’s anxiety inducing in its familiarity, particularly when you’re already uneasy. However, Emmi plunges further into darkness during its short running time and does so unflinchingly.

Regardless of being feature length or short films, it’s a rare thing to truly challenge an audience. Moreso to lay down the gauntlet to its audience and not provide all the answers. Writer/Director team, Susie Stead and Andrew Carslaw, are careful not to tip their hand as the events unfold and are careful to still offer something of a reward come the credits.

Emmi herself is woefully familiar. A torrent of hostility that keeps those around her at a suitable distance. Then there’s teen-mum, Ally and the soft-hearted tenant from the underpass, Sarah. The archetypes may be something you’ve seen, but there’s something in the atmosphere that has you thinking any of them could 180 at any time. The intrigue filling the stairwells of the high rise they share is almost palpable. You just know that all is not as it seems, but the clever way in which Stead and Carslaw create a tone of unsettling anticipation is enthralling. Even when Emmi reaches its darkest depths, you’ll be hard pushed to avert your gaze.

There’s no denying that the conclusion is provocative and hard hitting, but there’s certainly no shock tactics involved. If the subject itself and final message weren’t challenging enough, how you digest it will be.