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

These beautiful words, from the poem, The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver remind and inspire me.

They remind me that, first and foremost, my life is entirely what I make of it.  That’s right.  I, alone, am responsible for my experience of this existence.  No matter how much I’d like to, I can’t control the attitude or actions of anyone else.  Even if I meditated several hours a day, sending out ridiculously sunny, positive vibes, people that I love would still feel pain and suffer. I can take care of my body and be in the best shape of my life at 49 years-old only to require surgery on my knee.  While these happenings are beyond my power to influence, by consciously deciding my response to them, I determine my reality and the plan for my one wild and precious life.

For example, after being apart for almost a decade and many years of my being civil, heck – nice even, my ex-husband is still not amicable to me.  (Well, at least he is not down right mean anymore!)  My emails attempting to build comradery and cooperation about our teenage sons go unacknowledged.  Messages thanking him for his parenting efforts go unanswered. Any olive branch I extend is not accepted.  Upon relaying this to someone recently, they said to “stop sending them then!”  Seems like a logical response, right?

As I explained to them, I am not going to stop being who I want to be, an appreciative person who sees the good and expresses gratitude, because of his actions.  If I alter my behavior accordingly, then I am letting him, my reflexive emotions, and past conditioning determine who I am going to be instead of acting intentionally deciding this for myself.  Over time, bypassing gut reactions and repeatedly choosing to act differently supports the neural networks in the brain making this behavior easier and the default.  I’m not there yet, but I am continually working on it!

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”   I plan to live an intentional life making conscious decisions about who I want to be and behaving accordingly.

The words of the poem inspire me to go beyond my comfort zone, to allow curiosity and passion to lead me, and to take a big breath and push through the fear each and every time.  I want to look back on a life sprinkled with awkward moments, failures, and tears of pain because this would mean that I was putting myself out there, taking risks, and allowing myself to genuinely feel.  I also know that interwoven among these snapshots will be giggle snorts, exhilarating triumphs, and tears of joy.  Every one of these experiences synergistically completes the richly textured fabric of a full life.  Without any of it, even what is considered to be the “bad” stuff, the journey would be monochromatic and shallow.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I plan to live an adventurous, inquisitive life so that reminiscing brings a lively sparkle to my eyes, a knowing smile to my face, and a satisfied warmth to my heart.

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

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?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver.
All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on ““Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

  1. That’s a lovely poem. I haven’t ever seen it before. Mary Oliver reads like the kind of friend you could share a walk with, not say much out loud, and still understand each other’s experience in good company.

    The things that attract my attention at my age are more unconscious and intuitive than they were when I was your age. In that sense, I now plan a bit less and “do” a bit more, while trying to cherish and accept both the wildness and preciousness of my life, and the intersecting lives all around.

    If I might be allowed to compare an experience, even though everyone’s path is unique, I wrote letters to my child (both mentally and on paper) for 18 years unanswered, and then another three years before meeting face to face to begin a new relationship. The process of forgiveness and understanding takes the time it takes. Even if it remains forever a one-sided act of contrition, taking the action is still good for you in ways visible and invisible. I don’t stop asking God to talk to me just because the answer is inaudible.
    Invisible Mikey recently posted..Getting in the Spirit

    • Mikey, I love your analogy of writing letters to your child. I admire your persistence in extending grace over the years with no response. It does take commitment to not get discouraged. Yet, who we are and forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person or their reciprocation. It is a gift we give ourselves and from which we reap the benefits as you said even if it remains forever one-sided. I think, most often, the answer we are looking for is there if we are open to it just not in audible or visible ways. It is in our own hearts.

  2. Thank you for your inspiring story and the relation to the poem. I feel this story myself. As a mother of three and coming from a beautiful lively family that was very close.. I feel I have lived my whole life by the Golden Rule. As a yoga teacher and living this life… having fun, making people laugh– always being there for others. Then one day as a 44 year old woman who is living her life, being a loving mother, there for others, in a place of comfort for myself to live, love and enjoy. To be in love again in this life and to teach others about health and movement, writing, creating videos, travel, .. all great, super… I feel fortunate. But then a young girl in her early twenties to curse at you, to hate you, to say words I have never heard said to anyone in my life and especially not to me. Why? fear, envy and misunderstandings of stories not true and yes too much wine…. youth. It all hurts because it is the daughter of the person I love. Never an apology and never want to see us together- even though she tells her father she is happy for us to get his sympathy. A year has passed. I wish her well. Some people do not realize the evil energy they dispurse to others. Even her father said once she is evil after a bad spell and taking a flight early to get away from her. Wow. I can only live my life for me, my children, my family, my love, my students, this time. As you said we can not please everyone. It took me a very long time to deal with this because I have been fortunate to always have people like me.. and if they did not, I did not know it. Normally who would care but for this I did care. Letting it go… finally and knowing her youth and immaturity will one day pass. One day she may be in the same type of situation, who knows. They say not to worry about it because she is just that type of person. Lovely. All I know is I will teach my children to always respect their elders. And if you can not say anything nice to others… do not say it at all. Wisdom for my mother. I am thankful for healthy, intelligent , charming children. I am thankful for these times we live in. Amen.

    • Tara, thank you for commenting and sharing your experience. I am glad the post and poem resonated with you. We can drive ourselves batty and waste a huge chunk of our happiness by letting others decide with their reactions or lack of how we feel and behave. I have found much more peace in my own life consciously choosing who I am going to be regardless of the response of other. “Be the change” you want to see in others and in the world always is a good reminder of this for me.

  3. Debbie – what you’re doing must be quite a struggle – opting for the high road, and living an intentional and purposeful life. Living life on your terms and being the person you want to be. That really takes courage and strength. You may not be there yet but living intentionally puts you on the right path to being the person you want to be everyday.

    • Hi, Vishnu! Thank you for commenting. I do not think of it as a struggle at all, but I see what you are saying. It is certainly challenging because it goes against what I was taught. Consciously choosing who I want to be in all situations and how I want to respond feels invigorating and like the most natural thing in the world. When I choose to react, follow my emotions, or heed the opinions of others, a struggle always ensues. It is the internal discomfort of not allowing myself to be my authentic.

      It does often feel like taking the road less traveled and having to bushwack my own path, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you for your words of encouragement.

  4. I love the way you have interwoven your story with the themes of this poem. In so many ways, it’s such a relief when we realize that we are responsible for our own life and cannot control the world! I’m fully in accord with your intention to lead an intentional life. It may take a lifetime to get there completely, but we can enjoy becoming more intentional each and every day!
    Sandra / Always Well Within recently posted..A Treasury of Free Resources to Inspire Your Meditation, Compassion and Wisdom

    • Sorry for the late reply. I found the notice in my spam folder for some reason. Thank you for you your kind words.

      To live an aware life of intent, makes this existence so much for meaningful. Like you said, it may take a lifetime to get there, but that does not really matter and is kind of the point – to live a life of intent, huh? :)

  5. Hi Debbie,
    We need to be who we really are none the less. I know it can seem difficult at first but eventually our light shines through touching all whom we come in contact with.

    What really excites me about life is the ability to create, whether it is through writing or building something with my hands and mind. It’s all fun, exciting and rewarding to me.
    Justin recently posted..Read This if You Want to Survive 2012

    • Justin, thanks for commenting. I agree with your thoughts. All of it, the good, the bad and the ugly, make it all worthwhile and sure keep it interesting!

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