The poet, Mary Oliver, asks a provocative question at the end of her poem, “The Summer Day.”
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?
Three generations of WUS members answer her question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? It’s pretty clear that for me, with my gray hair, the question should be “What is it you planned to do . . . Well, I didn’t really plan. I expected life to happen – and lo and behold, it did!
Then how can I answer Oliver’s question? It’s an extravagant one that seems to demand a passionate response. I will be a spectacular mountain climber . . .win the Tour de France . . . be a prima ballerina. I will be a lawyer and defend social causes. I will be a poet and myth maker. I will make a fortune and use it to solve the world’s problems.
I can’t make that kind of response now.
But the poem suggests: Follow your bliss, no matter what your age. You have one life and it is indeed precious. Go with whatever calls you. Cast aside the conventional, the ordinary. No matter what stage we’re in, we yearn to be caught up in some larger purpose, to feel the adrenalin rush of acting for what we believe in.
Carlo Rovelli in his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, tells us that “…Albert Einstein [in his youth] spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time” Rovelli comments. He continues, “… Albert was reading Kant and attending occasional lectures at the University of Pavia: for pleasure, without being registered there or having to think about exams. It is thus that serious scientists are made”
And so, Rovelli makes the case for pondering . . . musing . . . dreaming, as necessary for achievement. Oliver, too, makes the dreaming and pondering a necessity for all of us, whatever our situation. She writes “I don’t know exactly what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…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. What else should I have done?”
She doesn’t suggest that she should idly and blessedly stroll through the fields every day of her life, making a career of it. Instead, to me, she’s saying: Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you are in life, be sure that you find time to stroll through the fields, paying attention, being in awe of swans and black bears and grasshoppers, becoming a part of this wild and precious world.
Whether you’re lucky enough to be caught up in work to which you are called OR you are pressing routinely forward as the days require; whether you have an unswerving drive toward a goal OR you’re still not sure what you want to be when you grow up, the question pertains. Your wild and precious life needs tending. Stop and think about it.
Stop and Be. What daring ideas!
Oliver says the news is good… that even at my age, I can still plan to find, renew, sustain my one wild and precious life. So that’s what I’m going to do: ask myself — and answer – the question again and again.
That’s my response. Of course we’ll all have differing answers, but wherever you are in the course of your existence, keep on asking yourself the question…
Upon reflection, I have determined that the path my life has taken has been somewhat “typical.” It seems that my life can be broken up into chunks. And from the two other people speaking today, I could be characterized as middle-aged.
YOUTH: I was born. For the following 18 years I was a youth, and did those youthful things like going to grade school and creating relationships with those around me.
COLLEGE and YOUNG ADULTHOOD: Here I spent the next part of my life away from my family furthering my education and earning a living. I also met Steve- This was a time for further defining who I was independent from my nuclear family.
Next came MARRIAGE and PARENTING: After being married for three years we had Rachel, then 2 years later had Alex. This is the chunk of time I’m in now. It should last around 20 years (if they go to college/ grad school and land successful jobs upon completion). (Don’t worry- I’ve heard it doesn’t always go this way.)
Steve and I spend most of our time together focused around our children- working our very hardest to provide a wonderful life for them- giving them freedom and at the same time creating boundaries for them. Deliberately guiding them toward success, but also letting them fail. We’re not perfect at it, but we’re doing the very best we know how, and we’re working our most hardest at not allowing un-liked aspects of our parents’ parenting to leak through into our parenting. It’s ALWAYS evolving. It’s VERY hard work as I’m sure all you parents would agree.
SO the question is- How do I plan to spend the rest of my one wild and precious life? In about five – six years I will likely be an EMPTY NESTER. Well, with all this parenting, there is little time for Steve and I to enjoy each other’s company. Don’t get me wrong. We love being with our children, but we miss doing STUFF together- just us. Once our kids are in college, I look forward to really reconnecting with him- going on impromptu dates and movies, museums, and trips together. Unlike most of our friends, we have NEVER had a vacation away from our kids. I’m already dreaming about our 20th anniversary (2019).
Along with spending more time with Steve, I plan to continue to be an avid exerciser as long as my body will let me. I’m a runner, a swimmer, a dog walker (just my own dog), a cyclist and a yoga person. Currently exercise is my number one priority every weekday. It gets scheduled before grocery shopping, gardening, house cleaning, laundry and errands. It even trumps my hobbies. My whole mind and body feels relaxed and content after any of my workouts.
Work. (for pay- that is). I’ve been at home raising Rachel and Alex for 14 years and wouldn’t change it for the world. When they are gone will I search for a job that gives me money in return? I’m still pondering this. Will I go back to teaching or school counseling? I don’t know. This is still something I think about… but so far, nothing has called out to me.
Besides exercising, I love making things. I have been sewing since the age of 8 and knitting since the age of 10. You could call me a crafty lady- –put me in my studio in our basement and you won’t see me for HOURS. So I plan to continue to make things- for my family and my friends. I’m hoping to do a lot more of this once Rachel and Alex have moved on to college and beyond.
All this sounds lovely- lots of fun. Doing stuff to help me and my family be happy and feel good.
Something my two sisters and I are quickly coming to realize is that my 82-year-old father is ready for some transitioning… though he doesn’t quite see this. It has been really difficult for my sisters and me to kindly and lovingly guide our stubborn and increasingly forgetful and confused dad to do certain things we feel are necessary and to guide him toward where we feel he needs to be. Our mom passed away 7 years ago today. He reconnected with a high school sweetheart very shortly after her death and has been with Helen ever since. Unfortunately she lives in Baltimore, so they visit each other every few weeks- taking turns. My Dad still insists on driving himself down there in his Prius because it is cheaper– 8 hours total.
This Christmas my sisters and I helped him sort through many, many boxes of books… along with a few other odds and ends at his storage unit. If you were at the swap shop on Friday and picked up a box of partially used legal pads, or a gigantic Coleman cooler, those items were my dad’s. Congratulations.
It was a small triumph that we were able to convince him that nobody would want his 40-year old moldy canoe cushions. We let him keep the two anchors- because of course every canoe needs an anchor. And I learned through my sisters that the yogurt containers he has been collecting are to sort his penny collection (he’s been collecting since the 70’s).
So I’m preparing for and beginning to experience a really tough roller coaster ride with a dad who’s wheels are pretty sticky and rusty and won’t roll smoothly on those tracks at all.
In the end, I would say I have come to understand that there is not huge value in creating detailed plans for the future. My plans are not WHAT I want to do but HOW I want to do it and WHO I want to do it with.
I very much wish to stay in the present, address life’s challenges as they come, and build life around the things I love, and what makes me happy. Thank you for coming to church today and listening to the plans for my future.
At no other point in my nineteen years has my life seemed so wild and precious as it does now. At no other point have choices, possibilities, and bifurcations of my future loomed so headily in my conscience. Questions about my future career, my future travels, and my future spouse, swarm me. I feel at the brink of something monumental, as if the choices that I make now, as an undergraduate and as a shifting individual, will condition the parameters of the remainder of my life. It is a somewhat overwhelming predicament, and at times I feel paralyzed by it. Life seems to be pouring itself upon me, and I feel almost helpless, too slow to catch it while it rains down. What has resulted from this whirlwind of the world opening itself up to me is a sense of uncertainty, of indecision, of a lack of control. I have become acutely aware of something that has always lurked beneath my conscious thought: the fact that I have a need for control, that I must structure the life that lay before me with the most ideal architecture, one that leaves me with the most bifurcations open.
In Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” read earlier by Reverend Heather, the speaker asks “who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?” I think these questions are crucially pertinent to the question of what I will do with my one wild and precious life. The speaker raises questions of essential self, asking the origins of the creatures that she lists: how did the swan come to be what a swan is? How did the black bear; the grasshopper; the world?” The questions themselves are moot. I am more interested in what they reflect in regards to the construction of human identities that the poem explores. Who makes me? Who makes my friends, my family, everyone that I have known and cared for? In asking these questions, I come to understand more clearly an essential truth: people become who they are because of what they’ve experienced, what they’ve been given, what and whom they’ve known and and cared for. They’re reactions to predicament represent but a small proportion of “who they are.” We are composites of our experience, of our interpretation and construction of our own nuanced, individualized realities. And we have no control over this.
I want to live a life where I don’t need control. That is not to say that some control, some structuralization of our lives, is unnecessary or to be rejected. I mean only that I want to live a life where I feel free to start something new, where I can recognize and acknowledge the matrix of possibilities open to me. I want to live a life unrestrained by my own arbitrary standards for myself. Critic Kristin Dombek writes: There is always nothing you can say that is absolutely right, but you must speak anyway. In other words, in order to live, we must we willing to project ourselves into the world. We must accept that nothing we say is completely correct, or truthful, and in extension, that nothing we do is perfect, and that lives are inherently tumultuous affairs. Going forward, I want to live by Dombek’s maxim. I want to say–with reasonable restraint–what I believe to be true. I want to live a life in which I can exist in the world comfortably, knowing and improving upon my flaws while not allowing them to stop me from living. I want to feel free to make choices, acknowledging that there is risk without letting that risk paralyze.
I want to feel free to simply live.