One Wild and Precious Life

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?

–by Mary Oliver

That poem was posted in the comments section on a blog I love (Momastery), and it struck me pretty hard.

You see, I have a bad habit of trying to do too much with my wild life. Raise animals, grow food, raise children, help others, write for money, write for pleasure, keep the house clean, raise more animals, homeschool, volunteer, read, write for fun, write to family, clean the house, cook meals, keep up with laundry, mow the lawn, maintain friendships, learn new technologies, post to Facebook, keep up with Twitter, learn kung fu, meditate, maintain a blog, raise more animals, keep a cat, help out the shelters, post on forums, help out friends, host parties, join associations, go to plays, eat out, bake bread, get famous, get rich…

I start one thing, get frustrated with it, start something else. Flailing madly around. And then I’m always frustrated because I can’t ever get it all done and my whole life seems like a hopeless waste of potential.

So the reminder that I only have ONE life and that it is wild, and it is precious… is rather scary. But it came also with a gift, a reminder that perhaps the best thing I can do with that one wild and precious life is to pay attention, to throw myself down in the grass and PAY ATTENTION.

So I’ve been trying to do more of that in an effort to do LESS of the mad flailing around. And I’ve learned a few peculiar things. For instance, when I am feeling rushed, harried, and overwhelmed, the answer is NOT to do it faster so I can get more done. The answer, oddly, is to SLOW DOWN. And, of course, pay attention.

Our riding mower has been broken all season, and our one-acre lot looks like it’s been abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle. To stave off worried neighbors and prevent a notice from the city about unsanitary neighborhood conditions, I keep the very front portion trimmed every weekend using a manual mower–no battery, no gasoline, just my two arms and the sweat that gathers on my upper lip and at the base of my neck at the hairline. It’s grueling, hot work, and not particularly gratifying because the grass never grows more than an inch each week, but if I leave it until the next weekend it will be too tall for the manual mower to handle. Sometimes I can’t even tell where I’ve mowed and where I haven’t, so I’ll do the same stretch several times just to be sure.

At the end of twenty minutes that feel like two hours, I look up and I still have the ditch to mow and that one large patch at the end that takes longer than all the rest combined. Thank goodness for eyelids, because instead of falling into my eyeballs, the sweat is dripping into the crease of my lids where it pools and gathers strength for the next leg of its journey down my face.

This is a crossroads. I can quit now, and next weekend the front lawn will be too far gone for the manual mower and in three weeks it will look like a foreclosed trailer lot. I can speed up and get the unpleasant job done as quickly as possible, surviving the next miserable twenty hours (ahem, minutes), by wishing that it were time to return to the house, panting and weak, and to throw myself face-down on the cool comforter under the fan.

Or I can choose to be alive, fully present, and make the next twenty minutes a joyous part of a joyous life. And the only way I know how to do that is to slow down.

So I look at everything I have left to do. And everything I’ve already done. I take a deep breath and feel it fill my belly. I hear a car whoosh by right next to me. Listen to the seesawing buzz of cicadas doing frantic ab crunches to attract a mate. I feel the strength of my own arms and the beating of my heart. And then I begin to push. The blades whirr and slice, my arms vibrate, the foam of the push bar depresses under my hands. One foot steps forward, then the other. Forward, then back. It becomes a meditation.

More quickly than I would expect, I am mowing the last swath of grass, then upending the mower and pulling it back down to the garage. Indoors again, I do indeed throw myself, sweat and all, onto the comforter and close my eyes to feel the soft swish of air over the hairs on my arms. And it is good. And I smile.

And I want all my life to be like this, like the meditative walk back and forth across the lawn. Except maybe I could do without the heat and sweat some of the time.

And the only way I know how to make all my life a sacred, meditative walk, is to try to do less, but do it with more attention.

So I thought about what it is I plan to do with my one wild and precious life, and it’s so simple that it’s trite, but I’ll say it anyway: Love.

Love my life partner, my beloved, my Carey. Lavish him with attention and adoration, take time for the little details that please him, delight in the sound of his voice, relish the feel of his muscles, revel in the communion of stimulating conversation, laugh at his jokes (especially when they’re funny). Pay attention.

Love the three little souls, the three priceless children I’ve been entrusted with. Shepherd their learning, answer their questions, laugh at their jokes, adore their little voices. Cuddle them in the mornings, read to them at bedtime, listen to their endless stories, assist them in their projects. Pay attention.

Love God, the Universe, my Neighbors, and Everything. And it turns out that for me, this means training the gift of writing that I was entrusted with, and offering it back, polished and improved, like the good steward in the parable of the talents. Because when a person is gifted, the “gift” is not necessarily FOR that person, but rather FROM that person, if they choose. And that IS what I choose. So I will study my craft, work it, practice it, hone it, every day. I will be mastering it so that I can offer the most beautiful gift I am capable of. And of course, good writing begins with good observation… So again it comes down to: Pay attention.

Some of that writing will end up here. Some will be mere exercises performed to improve my skills. Some will be fiction and may not ever show up anywhere. Some will be for pay and some for fun and some because I believe in something. All of it will be the best I can do at that moment, with the fullest attention I’m capable of paying. I may never be Mark Twain or J.K. Rowling or Anne Lamott or even the Bloggess, but I will at least know I’ve done as much as I could with what I’ve been given. Tell me, what else can I do?

What is your gift? What will you do with YOUR one wild and precious life?

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3 responses to “One Wild and Precious Life

  1. It’s such a gorgeous and moving poem!

    My gift (and boy it’s tough to say so confidently and not feel arrogant) is to find and tell powerful stories. I’m a career journo and author of two NF books; the most recent one keeps attracting email saying how well I captured strangers’ lives (it’s about my experiences working retail.)

    I don’t have kids, and still cannot imagine doing 1/20th of what you attempt. Slowing down and focusing are the only solution in my experience.

    • Hi Caitlin! Thanks for stopping by. Like you (per your blog), I am having to learn to say “no.” But sometimes it’s hard to know which things to turn down. Having a tight focus makes it easier. But yeah, I’m still trying to do too much… Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  2. The gift is from us and for us to recognize and develop confidence to let it flow! Life is the journey to find it and do something with it. At 44 and 4 entrusted ones, each day is challenging, yet I still am not exactly sure of my exact gift, but also realizing it may be a little bit of everything, from watching a hummingbird, to eating some sweet warm tomato from the vine, or simply paying attention to a song they want to sing even though I would like to say goodnight. I agree with you. Pay attention, you might not even recognize a gift that you gave, but someone else may be quite blessed1

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