Your One Wild and Precious Life

I studied English Literature in college. I’m sure that comes as a shock, and I understand if you need to take a minute to process this new information. Take your time; I’ll wait.

I have a [brilliant, beautiful, awe-inspiring] friend who was also an English major. We share a deep-rooted love for the written word, but while I chose to pursue creative writing, she opted for a pre-law concentration. She knew before she applied to colleges that she wanted to practice environmental law one day, and she worked tirelessly toward that goal during her college years—leading first-year honors program cohorts, participating in a rigorous year-long course of study that emphasized personal vocation and leadership, spending a semester at Oxford University, chairing a group called Advocates for a Sustainable Future, taking high-level political science classes, and serving as student body vice president. I, meanwhile, changed my objective nearly every time a new career path was suggested to me. Publishing editor? Sounds good. Food writer? Of course I’d love to get paid to eat. Journalist? Sign me up for the college newspaper! Rather than use my free time to research internship opportunities and what kinds of jobs were realistically available to English degree-holders, I spent much of it running the trails through the campus woods and in my dorm’s kitchen trying out new recipes for healthier cookies.

Given our vastly different approaches to our time in college, I think it follows unsurprisingly that when I read the following lines of poetry on a magnet in her apartment, I found them fitting for her and condemning for me:

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

Despite the fact that Mary Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods” is my favorite piece of poetry in the whole world, I never bothered to look up the rest of this Mary Oliver poem. I just let the couplet on the fridge judge me every time I visited my friend, let it convince me my life and what I was doing with it wasn’t enough.

Graduation day arrived, and my friend and I parted ways: she to Tennessee to participate in a social justice program, and I back to my home state. One employment opportunity after another failed to meet my expectations, and I found myself sitting at a picnic table on a pier one day trying to untangle the thread of my existence and determine where it led next. Those lines of poetry surfaced in my memory and I stopped my angsty journaling long enough to find the whole poem on the Internet and read it once, and then again more slowly, and then a third time as I copied it line by line into my journal.

“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?

It was never about great accomplishments or fame and fortune.

It was about grasshoppers. The fragment of a poem I let myself feel condemned by for so long was about grasshoppers.

I laughed at myself, and then I closed my journal and spent a luxurious half hour soaking up the late autumn sunshine.

It’s been several months now, and I’m no closer to figuring out my life trajectory than I was that day on the pier. But I have come to understand that life is intrinsically wild and precious. You do not have to earn that distinction with a high-powered career or a singular driving purpose or a heap of accolades. Those things do not determine whether a life is worth living.

There is space, there is time, there is grace for the dreamers and the creatives. Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? I don’t need to stress out about the future. I need only to work hard at whatever my hand finds to do and learn to pay attention to the moment, to be present, to honor the gift I have been given. To kneel down in the grass…to be idle and blessed.

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

—Emily

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  • What a great reminder to just be present, to enjoy those moments of sunshine, to ask, to question, to pay attention, and to just be. Thank you for reminding me.