It’s been over a year since the death of my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver. She died January 17, 2019 and her passing quickened my spirit, that is to say, in plain English, kicked me ass. It did what my grandfather Pollard used to say, it got me to thinking. That is a dangerous thing.
Her poem, The Summer Day, was written in 1992. It concluded with a line that has inspired and haunted me since I first read it: Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Each word seemed important, critical.
Wild. Unpredictable, uncontrollable. Open to possibility. Open to disaster. Things can fall apart. Things can come together. Like a box of chocolates, Forrest proffers. Indeed. Except there was always that gold foil covered lump in the center of the box, a morsel of chocolate with white creme and a cherry. I never liked that, both the knowing and what was there, an odd texture to my taste.
Precious. Valuable. Of great worth. Priceless is the word my culture utters much too often, capriciously, which is incompatible with “precious”. Inestimable is difficult enough to pronounce to give one pause. Worth pausing, precious.
But the word grabbing at my soul as I reread this wild, precious poem is ONE.
That’s just too much truth for me to handle in my club chair. One, indeed. Singular, limited, finite. Too damn descriptive and demanding for my taste. Let’s soft-sell and pretend that we have all the time in the world. I mean ALL the time in the world. That’s what we want.
I am most fortunate to talk with a group of friends I have gathered over the years, the smartest folks I know. One lives in Austin, one resides in Nashville, and one is in freaking Warsaw….Poland, by God, not Indiana. Through the gift of an online platform, I am able to connect with these three amigos through Zoom, to discuss what is on our minds, be it life in general, politics in particular, or religion in peculiar.
In talking about the death of a person we all knew, music flooded my mind as it often does. This time it was lyricist, Neil Diamond, whose Jewish roots and spiritual proclivities have long captured me. I’m a Believer or my favorite, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. The specific song that invaded was Done Too Soon. After chanting a litany of names from Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice Wolfgang Mozart, Humphrey Bogart, he pauses the chant to bring home his point. That each one of them had one thing to share: they have sweated beneath the same sun, looked up in wonder at the same moon; and wept when it was done, for being done too soon. For being done too soon.
Damnit, that’s it, I said in a Steve Harvey emphatic pronouncement long before i knew who Steve Harvey was. Before he shaved his Afro, designed his three-piece suits, and gone all Family Feud on us. Speaking the truth, Steve did, like OJ is guilty, or telling the truth about being in church, and the inimitable “building fund”. This was it. The pop music rabbi named it for me. Life is short, finite, never enough.
So, if this is a truth that grabbed me at sweet sixteen when I was discovering what hormones were and the feel of a Pontiac Firebird 400’s power under my right foot, the question became the query of Mary Oliver. Well then, this life, what are you going to do with it?
To be, or not to be? Just the first question, but then what to do with that being? What to do with the time that is given to you to live, due to accident, genetics, choice? What do you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?
It’s a question we may back into, following the tilts of the board we find ourselves riding? Or, it may take the form of an elaborate plan someone has made for you, or perhaps, one you have planned out for yourself. For most of us, it’s a combination of chance happenings, twists of fate and defining moments of decision.
But Mary Oliver calls the question in a playfully serious way, at least it comes to me that way. What do I want to do with this time I have in this world.
I have spilled some ink writing about my vocational wonderings and wanderings, and as I said confessionally to an old friend, there are a passel of “what ifs” in the mix. It goes with the territory of being human. You pays your money and you take your chances, is a folksy way of framing the existential dilemma. If you’re interested, you can revisit some of my writings in this blog to get your fill of such musings.
These days, I spend a lot of my waking time working with leaders figuring out how to make a difference with the limited time and energy they have. I coach healthcare leaders and docs, teachers, artists, architects, activists, and business folk. Like Neil Diamond’s list, they all are living the life we share, within their peculiar context, but all wanting to have a life that has meaning, homo poeta.
I enjoy them all, but I particularly enjoy the young ministers who are trying to figure out how to lead a congregation while being true to the soul they are carrying along with them. It’s not unlike the work of marriage, the hard work of maintaining one’s own identity while sharing life with an other. It’s what my teacher, Tom Malone, called intimacy. How can I be my true self while being in relationship with an other self that’s doing the same thing, striving to be themselves? It’s easy to opt for the culturally automatic mode of living out a conventional script but not really taking the risk of being one’s true self. That happens so easily for ministers and priests who opt into company mode, fitting the role rather than being the person, or as they used to say, parson.
I got a phone call at lunch today from my son who is a musician in Nashville. He is the proverbial singer/songwriter who puts his heart on the line with his words about life and love. I remember him in high school, taking the field on a Spring day with his band, singing The Weight as he played drums like Levon. I could not have been more proud of his courage to take the stage and push the outside of the envelope. Then, he dared to offer up a song that he had written, music and lyrics, his very soul. I could have busted with pride.
He did that for years in Athens in his band, Mama’s Love, as he played every honky tonk, toured the States with this gypsy band of friends who shared the road and dreams. I still remember going to hear him play on stage, watching people sing along with the words he had written. The biggest thrill for me as a dad was to see him turn to his bandmates, in the middle of a song, and exchange a knowing smile. That look is what I have come to call a father’s psychic pay. It makes having a kid worth it when you sense his/her deep joy. Bank it.
One day when we were talking about life, he told me that he had watched me create “spirit” whenever I stood before a congregation gathered for worship. He said he wanted to do the same, only his place might be different. Did I mention psychic pay?
Today, we talked about relationships, timing, intimacy, finding the right person, following your dreams. At the end, I returned to the question Mary Oliver gave to me many years ago but still captures the beat of my poetic heart: what is it you plan to do with your one wild, precious life?
I am interested in how he answers that question with the living of his days. And my daughter by the water, how will she live out her one precious life? And my life partner, how will she answer the question in her next chapter? And of course, there’s me.
But how about you? Your one wild, precious life?