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The OnBeing Project,“Your one wild and precious life”

As fall begins to drift in, I’m called back to these lines in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”:

“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?”

Perhaps the greatest joy of poetry is how you’re able to hold its wisdom in your palm, keep it in your back pocket, turn it over in your head. The final question of this poem — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” — crosses my mind as I sleep and wake and wander, brushing my teeth or when I realize that the magnolia tree looming over me has been growing quietly this whole time.

In this way, poetry is both a companion and a gift, as Mary Oliver told Krista in a 2015 interview that we’re revisiting this week. “It’s a gift to yourself but it’s a gift to anybody who has a hunger for it,” she said. The thought echoes something philosopher Simone Weil once said — that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

At a moment when the world can feel strange and difficult — or, at the very least, monotonous — Oliver’s poem draws our attention back to how our earthly existence may be just enough to get us through. She found inspiration in the works of the Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean philosophy she sums up as: “What we are made of will make something else.”

“There is no nothingness — with these little atoms that run around too little for us to see. But, put together, they make something,” she said. “And that to me is a miracle. Where it came from, I don’t know. But it’s a miracle, and I think it’s enough to keep a person afloat.”

If we understand existence as a miracle, then maybe the generosity that Simone Weil speaks of is not what we extend to others, but instead what the world offers us — if only we’re lucky enough to look up and around in awe.


Photo Credit: Jean Cassidy, 2006


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SheVille Team

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