This week has started to feel like fall here in our neck of the woods, with cool mornings that call for a sweatshirt alongside a warm cup of coffee and the sweet song of crickets singing us to sleep at night. Officially the season will shift in a couple days. As leaves begin to cascade from their branches and it feels like the closing of another chapter, a frenetic stirring rises within me. Did I take advantage of this summer enough? Did I fill each day with all the possibilities the season held? We didn’t make it to the pool as much as I hoped. I saw other friends’ pictures on social media of picking blueberries, and we missed that. I wanted to travel more, and pack more adventure into each trip. Did I waste it? Did I waste this summer?
In life, there are so many things we could and should be doing. So many pressures of how to do everything and be everywhere and make the most of it all. To often, I’m afraid I’m missing out on what I could be doing with my time and what I should be doing with my life. Summer, in all of it’s abundance, can bring these feelings to the surface even more. Everywhere I turn there’s a festival or activity, an exotic vacation or new vocation calling.
But this summer, in the midst of it all, I embarked on a love affair. Not the kind of love affair that my husband should be worried about, lest anyone be concerned, but a love affair with a book, with a poet, specifically. When browsing through our little library one quiet evening, I pulled from the shelf a book of Mary Oliver’s poems. I knew of Mary Oliver, but had never read much of her work. The only lines of hers I was very familiar with were the oft quoted, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”
I found these words both inspiring and intimidating. The notion of my life as “wild and precious” was captivating, but the question of what to do with it was daunting. In light of Mary Oliver’s recent passing, I decided it was time to dive deeper into her work.
With no more than a couple lines in my repertoire, I weeded through Mary’s words each morning. I gulped them down with my coffee, each poem lingering with the sweetness of honey. I couldn’t get enough of the lyrical descriptions of nature and life. Her words felt like droplets of truth and beauty sparkling among the dew.
One sunny morning, as I thought about what I should do with my day, feeling heavy already with the weight of monotony, the burden of my ordinary life, and the frustrations and limitations brought on by trying to find my own path through life with two young children, I came across the aptly titled “The Summer Day.” It read:
“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?”
– Mary Oliver
I was struck by those words and felt a profound sense of relief. You see, I’d had it all wrong. All these years of seeing beautifully illustrated quotes questioning my ambitions for my “wild and precious life” were not that at all. When finally put into context, I realized, it wasn’t at all a rallying cry to strive for greatness, it was a quiet whisper to be grateful for the ordinary greatness that already surrounded me. It was a reminder to pay attention and appreciate life right where I am. It was an invitation to simply be still and notice the magic right in front of my eyes.
So the next time you scroll through social media and wonder if your summer measured up. The next time you crave a wilder, more adventurous life but feel limited by your circumstances. The next time you’re tempted to pack in all the activities just to make your days add up to something. The next time you doubt yourself because of what you haven’t accomplished as another season passes. Remember to look around you, really look, and find the small wonders that already exist. Remember that your life is wild simply because you inhale the breath of trees, precious simply because we all walk this Earth together. That is enough.
As for me, I spent this last summer day idling on a local beach, watching my girls make sand cakes for their Grandpa as the sun warmed the lake and surrounding ridge line. They threw sand into the water and watched in fascination as golden ripples radiated across the surface. We devoured sand smoothies and and felt the cool, autumn-tinged water wash over our sandy toes. I paid attention, to the joy spread across my children’s faces as they played with their Grandpa, and the enthusiasm he returned in kind, just being with us. Tell me, what else should I have done? Only this. Appreciating this day before it floats away.