Word came to me that Mary Oliver had died while I was proofing last week’s post. I found it auspicious as she has been one of my major inspirations during my writing life, charging me with a simple admonition: pay attention to the world around you! Attention is the starting point of devotion, she counseled. That was, in fact, what I was writing about last week, taking a lesson from my young son, Thomas, and his quest to look and see what God is doing in his backyard.
Paying attention to nature has always come easily to me. Perhaps it’s my native nature mysticism that I inherited from my grandfather’s love of God’s Creation. I was struck by his tendency to find his way to the wilderness whenever he could, making me his lucky co-conspirator. He built it into me, hard-wired, to go into nature whenever I can. I have made my way to the lush mountain wilderness of the Chattahoochee, to the pristine Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, to the rocky coastline of Maine, and to the Rocky Mountains of Montana. But it can be in the urban forest of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, or in the barren wildness of Texas Hill Country. This is where I find my cathedrals, as grand and inspiring as any built by hand. I’m betting you have your holy spaces as well, where the boundary between the ordinary and the sacred becomes thin. Holy spaces, indeed.
One of my earliest mystical experiences occurred just after a thunderstorm in that “in-between” time just after the storm ends and the tantalizing moment when everything reverts to the normal. The air itself felt electric, charged with possibility. Not in a wilderness, a suburban neighborhood street in my hometown of East Point was the setting for mystery to break through on that late summer afternoon. A deep sense of connectivity, of oneness, overwhelmed me, for a fleeting second. There, palpably, then gone. It is one of many moments that I have been gifted with through the years, coming and going when and where it will,
And I must admit that it’s happened in designated religious space as well, roped off and consecrated for just that. But Spirit seems to be not limited by schedules our programming, or convenience.
Mary Oliver captured that kind of sensitivity to nature and I am sure it was what first attracted me to her writing so many years ago. She died this past week as the age of 83, having moved from her beloved Provincetown, Massachusetts to the unfamiliar but warm mangroves of the west coast of Florida I find it curious that I find myself working these days on the east coast of Florida, at almost exactly the same latitude. Geographical proximity aside, I hit me hard, her death, the end of her life. It was a reminder of finitude, her finitude, the end of her brilliant career of writing. And it served as a reminder of my own finitude specifically; that it does all end. No getting out of this alive.
Earlier in my life, she had reminded me of the task of living. She wrote powerfully of her observations of life within a poem entitled The Summer Day. She meticulously described her view of a grasshopper, watching it perch as it methodically chewed on crystals of sugar with its mandible jaws. This very moment brings forth the question of how this world was made, who was the creator of this particular grasshopper?
And as the grasshopper takes wing to fly from her hand, it prompts an existential question as to the purpose of life itself. She writes, almost casually:
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 in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve 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?
Poetically framed, that is indeed the question? What are you planning to do with this time you have been given?
I spend a lot of my time working with folks who are trying to answer that very question. Some use sophisticated productivity planners to get a handle on where they are spending their minutes, hours, and days, what they are investing their time pursuing. Some are at the front end of their lives, trying to clarify a path into their future, even playing with the weighty word of vocation. Others are busy planning the next chapters in the story their lives are writing, looking for a plot or a twist. More and more, I find myself listening to a host of folks who are looking back reflectively, assessing the way they have spent their time and energy. All want to find that magic thread of trajectory that holds together and gives integrity to the lives they are living.
We share that human vocation of living one’s life in a quest for meaning. Some of us have more agency or freedom than others, but ultimately our choosing plays a role in how it is we are spent. To whom do you feel accountable? To whom are you answerable?
This week in which we remember the legacy of my hometown hero, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself reflective as to the way I have been spent and am spending this life. Martin’s prescient statement, on the night before he was shot down in Memphis, seemed to weigh literally the acts of his life in the balance. Longevity has its place, he said, but there are more important things, more critical things to consider. I believe he had assessed how he had spent his wild and precious life on that dark night, and while not happy with his fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was at peace.
As a white male, born in the United States, in the middle of the twentieth century, I have lived with possibilities and limitations. The privileges I have had and the limitations imposed have contributed to how I have spent my days. We have freedom to decide how it is we live, but only within the confines of limits that we have no say in determining. I have exercised the limited freedom afforded me but, at the same time, I have abdicated that very freedom at moments due to “caughtness” within systems. I have squandered that freedom in sheer laziness or seeking to maintain a seductive comfort. I have worked to invest part of my life energy in developing self-awareness in an attempt to be more free in my choices, to increase my agency, my freedom. And yet, the “caughtness” can trick me into the sleepy belief that I am self-aware, when I am not. Amnesia afflicts me when I forget who I am.
It’s a tough gig, this being human. Caught in the dilemma of freedom and limits. Life is this dilemma to live through, not a problem to be solved. And yet, as Mary Oliver reminded me years ago, and then again last week, it is a wild and precious thing.
Do you dare to face the question, dear Grasshopper? Tell me what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?