Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer’s Day has been the mycelium of the past week, showing up in the undergrowth and popping up here and there.
The last line and what are you doing with your one wild and precious life, continues to offer up potential. Such an open-ended question, yet deeply determined by the paths already trod and curiously encoded with unlimited possibilities. (It was this line that haunted me when I was discerning whether to run for the public office of Mayor.)
Summer is here in my part of the world and the coastline is full of locals and visitors. There are scenes of happy intergenerational families, flushes of new loves, ancient friendships and teens trusted to be alone for the first time. Between sandcastles and jet skis, ice-creams and sunblock there is the stickiness and ephemeral qualities of a day at the beach. The wild and precious moments being made into memories. Like the poet I witness and wonder how these lives will unfold. I do this with a little more curiosity and care this summer than I have done in the last. This summer I am the Mayor and that brings into view ways we might all be safe together, support our environment, build community, and trust, and be welcoming to the stranger and respect the custodians. I hold questions like: How are these values fostered in the wild and precious lives of those who arrive on any summer’s day?
There are slurs and taunts, some with great mirth attached to them and others more like orders from a five star general, being shouted into the blue sky between beach cricket matches and speeding cars putting little ones at risk. Hearing some of the language peppered with violent intent, worries me about how those voices are being fed in their undergrowth. I continue to be shocked by the unfiltered nature of many of the words I hear with no regard to the wild and precious lives of others. There is always an arrogance and sense of privilege that irks me, when I hear that kind of language and in that kind of voice in public places.
But nothing will move me from the beauty of the poem and then it shows up again in the celebration of a dear friends 50th anniversary of her profession as a religious sister. Along with two of her faith companions celebrating the same phenomena, they collectively chose this poem as one which has held and inspired their lives. Invoking the words, they arrive with deep love into my heart – as celebration of all that has been, confirmation of what has been achieved, and an invitation to an open door into the future – blessed, without judgement and totally undefended and vulnerable to all possibilities.
I muse on the meanings and let the words roll around in my head and off my tongue as I recite it again and again after I leave the ritual (and generous celebratory High Tea). I too don’t know what prayer is, but I do know when I see people gather and share their lives and I am in the presence of those who live their truth and find themselves in the elements, I am party to grace and goodness. I know when I feel the sun on me and take the hand of a child, I am being offered gifts and receiving them with deep gratitude. I see the grains of sand and can’t help but notice the joy they give when shovelled into little buckets that get upturned and created into magical and mysterious worlds. On a summer’s day, like any day, there is a day to be honoured and respected for all that it brings to any of our wild and precious lives. It is a constant unfolding, like the grasshopper’s wings to open and shut and make a flight path of mycelium to take all that you have found and known, and questions that are emerging from one summer’s day into another and then another and then another.
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?
from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver