The pull quote is one of my favorite lines from Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. Don’t be misled by the quote. It’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems.
Let’s fool around with the quote the way that Oliver would like for us to fool around with it. Let’s try a paraphrase:
What do you plan to do with your life?
There. That’s seems simple and straightforward. I ask my students something similar:
Tell me. What do you want to be when you grow up?
That’s simple and straightforward, too.
What makes me pause, however, is one life. Who amongst us thinks about having one life? We all know that in reality we only have one life. But as Oliver phrases it, it becomes a caution: remember–you’ve only got one life; don’t screw it up.
I linger longer in the presence of the word wild. Wild–unrestrained or not adhering to the rules–goes against the grain of having a plan. Wild and plan seem contradictory and mutually exclusive.
I lean in harder against the word precious and pause once more. Again, the poet seems to be suggesting that as we design our plan and imbue our life with wildness, we need to remember that our one life is precious. It is of great value. It is not to be wasted. It is not to be approached carelessly. But, if that be true–and it is–how can we couple wild and precious?
Suddenly the seemingly simple poetic line becomes a hefty and weighty question that leaves us staggering as we reach the poem’s end.
Interestingly enough, Oliver opens her poem with questions that are more sobering:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
Those Creationism questions are too large for any poet to answer, especially in a short poem such as Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”
Oliver knows that, too. In the next few lines, she does a masterful poetic pirouette that shows us how we can approach those questions–how we can approach our one wild and precious life–by shifting our focus from the riddled enormity of the cosmos to the more understandable singularity of the immediate moment:
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
Think about it. What happens when we shift our focus from the big picture to something right in front of us? What happens when we shift our focus from trying to figure out who made the grasshopper to simply being at one with the grasshopper–not all grasshoppers, just THIS grasshopper?
When we shift from a wide-angle lens to a close-up lens, we begin to see the here and now. We begin to see what’s in front of us. We begin to see THIS grasshopper as she gazes around, washes her face, opens her wings, and flies away.
It seems that the poet would have us understand that our pause in the presence of immediacy–THIS grasshopper, for example–opens gateways to deeper meanings, more felt than understood.
The poem continues:
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?
How incredibly simple. Stroll through the fields. Be idle and blessed. Fall down–kneel down–into the grass. Pay attention. Stay there all day.
That’s precisely the plan that Mary Oliver offers us as a way of living one wild and precious life. Have no plan other than to kneel before the summer day. Have no plan but to kneel before this grasshopper. Have no plan but to kneel before the immediacy of the moment.
We may not have answers to the big questions. We may not know fully what prayer is. But we certainly have the ability to pay attention to all the here-and-now grasshoppers that bid us be idle and be blessed as we kneel the whole livelong day.
As I begin 2023–having ended a glorious 23-year career as a professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College and before that an equally glorious 25-year career at the Library of Congress–I am reinventing myself.
Understandably, the question that most people ask me is:
“What’s your plan?“
“Say whaaat?” I gasp. “My plan? What plan?”
All that I hope to do is pay attention to my own here-and-now grasshoppers as I kneel before them.
That’s how I’ve lived my life so far. Maybe that’s why I’m so stoked by this poem. I’ve always been able to pay close, reverent attention to the task at hand, so much so that, most of the time, it’s as if nothing else matters. It’s as if nothing else exists. That’s not to say that I have not had short- and long-range plans. I have. But the greater joy for me has come by allowing myself to be rapt by the moment and to be slain right then and there in its immediacy.
I hope to continue living that way as I reinvent myself. I want to kneel down lovingly in the grass before the things that I love so much:
● Language, Literature, and Writing.
● Research and Publishing.
● Biking and Hiking.
● Baking and Gardening.
● Family and Friendships.
● Home and Hearth.
● Faith and Spirituality.
As I kneel before those loves and more–known and unknown; seen and unseen–I want to lean in, pause, and pay close attention to the singularity of each and every moment, fully confident that my one wild and precious life will continue to unfold precisely as it should unfold, precisely according to plan.