"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me.
It seemed all at once too esoteric and erudite.
Like it was made for and by very refined, polished, and learned people.
Like it would take many lifetimes to comprehend the meaning of poems.
And yet, I was always curious about poetry, drawn to it despite my feeling that it was beyond my capacity for understanding.
One day, not more than a decade ago, I heard, for the first time, poems by Mary Oliver.
And everything changed. I finally found my home in poems.
Her “ivory tower” was the wild and rugged landscapes she captured so candidly and cleanly in her poems.
Each word she chose in her writing, essential — no fanciness for fancy’s sake. Yet potent and wrenching in their specificity.
Words that could stop you in your tracks and feel all at once the simplicity of the movements of an insect and the mystery of life’s big questions.
Her poem “The Summer Day” begins with a fascinated observation of a grasshopper nibbling sugar.
Which for Mary Oliver is the most natural way into life’s biggest, deepest contemplations:
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?
Like poetry, meditation eluded me for so long.
Meditation felt like something reserved for holy, serious people with far clearer consciouses, better habits, purer intentions, and more restraint over their messy, beautiful human impulses than I seemed to possess.
Meditation, I imagined, was monastic and masculine. And meant sitting alone on a mountaintop for hours on end — no commutes, no overflowing inboxes, no glasses of wine over dinner with friends, to pull you away from holy deliberation.
I’m grateful now for all the teachers and experiences who have shown me differently — those who have studied traditional and formal meditation practices with specific and time-tested techniques and tools, which have been invaluable in creating and committing to my own daily formal meditation practice. Those lesson have been invaluable.
And undoubtedly as important and possibly even more so, my informal meditation teachers. Like the experience of early motherhood, getting to bare witness to the unwavering presence of my son when he was an infant and his now captive attention when observing anything new for the first time as a toddler.
Lessons in meditation which suggests so simply that we all started this way — that presence is our birthright too.
And as it would come to be, poetry has given me my post potent instructions on how to pay attention, which is in essence — meditation:
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?
Where poetry meets presence meets practice is the jumping off point for 40 Early Mornings, an intimate and intentional virtual yoga and meditation experience, beginning this Saturday September 21.
40 Early Mornings not only invites you to create ritual daily meditation and yoga practice, but gives you a daily invitation to show up for yourself each day and stay long enough to consider contemplations like this:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
p.s. Here’s the whole excerpt of “The Summer Day,” which is no substitute for settling in with a hard copy of one of Mary Oliver’s anthologies.
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?