About three years ago, I discovered American poet Mary Oliver, who died a year and a half ago. Someone pointed me to two of her most famous lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My first thought was “Wow! What a strong and amazing question to contemplate.” In seventeen haunting words, Oliver asks us to ponder one of the deep questions of our lives.
But she does more than that. Embedded in the question is an affirmation that our lives are valuable. It’s worth taking time to ponder. We can honour the beauty of our lives by living a more reflective life. It’s not enough simply to meander through the days of our lives. It’s a good thing to take time to reflect and ponder and wonder.
Ever since, Mary Oliver has become part of my devotional practice. In 2017, she collected the best of her poetry in a book —“Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver”. I read a poem each day, which becomes the basis of my devotional reflections throughout the day.
Oliver is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and neglect. As a result, nature became her sanctuary, and she has become known primarily as a nature poet. But that doesn’t do her justice. Beyond the healing power of nature in our lives, she addresses deeper themes of love, loss, joy, wonder, gratitude. Nature is the entry point for her beautiful writing.
I think the thing which touches me most deeply is that she notices. She sees. She pays attention. She takes the time to regard those things which many of us pass by so quickly. As she marks the ordinary creatures and moments of life, she shows her deep respect for all of life, and sees something there which reaches out to our hearts. She is a deeply sensual person, delighting in her senses as she explores the fullness of life. As she said in an interview, “We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness.” She feeds that hunger.
The two lines which opened up the world of Mary Oliver for me come at the end of her poem “The Summer Day”. Here is the whole poem:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
While those two lines at the end are most often quoted—I’ve seen them in facebook memes, needlepoint charts, posters, and so on—for me, the heart of the poem comes a couple of lines earlier: “Tell me, what else should I have done?”
At its heart, this poem is a little revolution. Oliver questions our political and economic life which assumes that the most important thing in life is to be productive— to produce, to make, to achieve, to acquire. Oliver suggests that perhaps a more productive way to be is “falling down into the grass, kneeling down in the grass, being idle and blessed, strolling through the fields all day.” What else should I have done?
It’s a provocative question. It has become even more meaningful in this time of pandemic as we have had to consider all the different ways in which we used to live. We are having to find new ways to be together. We have received the gift of rethinking what is important in our lives as individuals and collectively as a society.
Mary Oliver helps us think about what makes for a day well lived. How should I spend this “summer day”? I mean this summer day. The one we’re in right now. Tomorrow is another summer day when we can think about it all over again.
And as we think about each day, as we become more mindful people, revelling in the small and large joys and hurts of each day, we begin to discern an answer to the final question of this poem about what we will do with our one wild and precious life.
What I am learning is that as I rethink what a “productive day” looks like, it turns out to look a whole lot less like a day tied to screens and emails and housework and errands and getting things done, and a lot more like the simple, astonishing affair of getting to know a grasshopper. This grasshopper, I mean. Or a child laughing deeply. Or a stream on its journey to the ocean. Or a cup of coffee with a friend.
I don’t mean to devalue work. We do need to get some things done. But work doesn’t give our life meaning. Work doesn’t really fulfill us. And if we remember that not everyone has the opportunity to take a day in the fields to be “idle and blessed,” then this poem may redouble our efforts to build a world in which everyone—everyone!—has the occasional time and space to stroll through the fields, “wild and precious,” holding out a little sugar in our hand.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook