It wasn’t that long ago that I realised how many of the poets I love best are Buddhist. They don’t make a big deal about it (most Buddhists don’t — I’m kind of an anomaly, blogging from a Buddhist/ Unitarian/ poetic platform), but it influences them in ways that resonate deeply. At least with me.
One of my favourites — and many other people’s, as well — is the poet Mary Oliver. Her profound respect for (and deep insight into) the natural world comfort, heal, and most of all, remind me that everything changes/ passes/ dies. Life — and time to appreciate it — are finite.
This poem — her poem “The Summer Day” — carries within it my mantra: what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life? There is no better, more beginner’s heart, line in poetry, in my none-too-humble (but amply educated!) opinion.
Our lives are ours to craft, no matter our circumstances. My grandmother, an old-time Baptist with strongly progressive leanings, used to try to reconcile free will and ‘what the Good Lord gives us.’ It came out a bit like this: you get a pile of quilt pieces (quilting’s big in my family — we love textiles!) that are the pieces of your life ahead. Some folks make beautiful, richly structured double wedding ring quilts, and linear log cabin quilts. And a few do the meandering drunkard’s path, while others haphazardly make sloppy crazy quilts. And some end up as they started: with pieces.
I love that metaphor. I’ve known it as long as I can remember, Grandma’s voice repeating it, and Aunt Bonnie nodding in agreement. I was probably sitting on the bed in Grandma’s bedroom, the one Uncle Charlie made from the old sleeping porch, watching Grandma sew on her treadle. Probably Aunt Bonnie was on the way outside to work in the yard or garden (the ‘yard’ had flowers; the ‘garden’ all edibles ). Two old widow women with blue hair, making do with very limited income.
But their quilts? Far more beautiful than velvet, silk, or lace — intricately pieced from endurance and strength and creativity and generousity. Stitched with love and artistry, and filled with the feather-soft memories of the lives that came before and after.
Their lives still serve me as patterns, as I work to fit together the pieces of my life. Trying to figure out the pieces of a beginner’s heart, and what I will do with my own ‘wild and precious life.’
Here’s Oliver’s poem “That Summer Day”:
That Summer Day
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?