Wild and Precious Words

A small blackboard hangs in a prominent position in my kitchen. On it I try to keep a rotating stock of wise words, lines of poetry, short quotes – anything I’ve come across that I think deserves a little more of my time or maybe needs a little more pondering. The board is not a large canvas, so I have to be selective about the words that make it on to it and I try to change out the quote before I become complacent and overlook the wisdom within it. But earlier this summer, I left two lines of poetry up for so long that I thought I’d never manage to erase the liquid chalk when it came time for a change. 

The two lines are these:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

and they come from the poem ‘The Summer Day’ by Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver. I love the conversational tone of Oliver’s work and something about the rhythm of her lines sits very well in my ear. Those two lines though resonate above and beyond what any combination of sixteen words should be capable of.

Do you know those mornings when you stumble into the kitchen far earlier than you want to be up and about and all you can see are last night’s dishes in the drying rack or the floor that needs to be reacquainted with the steam cleaner or maybe there’s a dog following on your heels and reminding you that before your day can really start you need to put on some shoes and pound the pavements for a bit? I’m particularly susceptible to a bit of self-pity on days when domesticity and routine converge and the first few minutes of that morning walk usually see me grumbling to myself that I was made for better things and more excitement and and and…! Because I live alone I seldom get to hear the chastisement I probably need: how I should count my blessings and be thankful for what I have and be the change I want to see etc. And I know these things, I do! I try very hard to live my life as an expression of gratitude and grace and I really dislike myself when I have those grumbly moments. That tendency towards an attitude of entitlement is perhaps my biggest character flaw and I have to work hard to overcome it. And that’s where the Oliver poem comes in. Every time my eye catches those words I’m reminded that, not only is my life ‘wild and precious’, as it is and as it could be, but that it’s nobody’s job but mine to make the changes I want. They won’t just happen, so what is it I ‘plan to do’ about it!

Oliver’s poem emphasizes the value of paying attention, of being observant, of looking around us as a form of meditation or prayer. It’s a message I sometimes struggle to hear, but it’s most certainly worth sharing.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

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
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)

And because I’m only human and I spend enough time thinking poorly of myself without needing to encourage others to see only my weaknesses, I’ll offer up this screenshot from last summer’s paragliding adventure as evidence of my potential to be wild at times too!

Paragliding over Lake Garda, Italy
Paragliding over Lake Garda, Italy


3 thoughts on “Wild and Precious Words

  1. Paragliding! You are a brave one Em! I have done some truly crazy things but have not yet summoned the courage for that 😀 LOVE Mary Oliver and especially that poem. Ah moments of dissatisfaction and discontent! we all experience those moments! I think the problem with dreams is that if we ever hope to achieve them we have to actually act on them. We have to do something everyday that will take us closer to achieving our goal. Many of us of course would prefer it delivered to us on a silver tray without having lifted a finger to achieve it 😀 Life is in the doing and looks to me like you’re living it Em.

  2. A lovely poem and your interpretation of the last two lines in the light of everyday ‘coping’ rings a loud bell with me, and I’m sure, with many others. I think modern life puts pressure on us to always strive for doing more, for being better, for ‘making the most of yourself’ as my mother says. Have the wild moments from time to time, sure, but the core of existence isn’t about that, is it? As Heaney and Beckett might agree, the trick is ‘going on’ in your own unique way. Hang-gliding over Lake Garda! I’m suitably impressed and a tad jealous – well done! 🙂

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