A few entries ago, I wrote briefly about reading Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours. I would love to type out an entire poem here, but without having permission to reproduce it in full, will give you a link instead (and do read it in full), and quote the final four lines of what is probably her most well-known poem: The Summer Day.
She is writing about prayer. She says she does not know what a prayer is, but she does know how to pay attention: “how to be idle and blessed.” She has spent the day in what might appear to be idleness, strolling through fields, kneeling in the grass, examining the grasshopper. She asks:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everyone die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Yesterday started with unexpected news from my mother’s family: the sudden death of one of my cousins’s spouses, mother of two, only 43. They live in another country, and I can’t say we’ve seen them more than every other year or so. But the day was nevertheless altered by the knowledge of this family, not far removed from my own, suffering an unimaginable shock and loss. What comfort can there be for her boys? Her youngest son is the age of my eldest. There was no preparation, no advance knowledge, just in an instant, one precious life gone. She is no longer in this world with her family.
What waits around the corner? What secret end is hidden inside the body, waiting to reveal itself in time? Nobody knows.
And so, Mary Oliver’s wise and bright words came again to me. No wonder they are quoted so widely. No wonder. Because, yes, everyone dies at last and too soon. And we are all alive, right now. If you are reading this, you are alive. Life is wild. It can’t be tamed, or made safe. It’s all any of us has really got. What are we to do with it? What a question.
Here’s what I did yesterday: hung laundry on the line, made yogurt, smelled my children’s hair, jumped on a trampoline, ran through the woods, cheered from the sidelines of a soccer game, drifted, fought impatience, struggled with my children arguing with each other, and wondered … what more? Or even, what less? What do I plan to do with this one precious life?