On our day off between class sessions this March, I took myself on a bookstore tour of Bayfield County. I promised myself I wasn’t going to spend any more money on books; I was only going to look. So, as I walked out of Honest Dog Books with a thick compilation of Mary Oliver poetry, I heard a bell tolling down by the lake. This bell was so sweet and so resonant, I had to follow the sound.
As I walked, the calling of the bells multiplied, and when I saw that my ears were leading me toward the Apostle Islands Marina, I realized the truth. There was no ghost ship calling me down to the waves with the chiming of its bell. This beautiful music originated from the sailboats propped up on shore, their steel cables clamoring against the tall, empty masts. I sat down beside the lake, and I began to read. And I thought to myself, this is one of the very last times in your life that you will be a young college student reading poetry on the margins of the lake that called you home.
There is a quote from a Mary Oliver poem that both thrills and terrifies me. You have probably heard this quote before. I’ve seen it on prints, necklaces, t-shirts, and of course, graduation cards. It goes like this: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
When I heard this quote for the first time, I was struck by two feelings: awe, at the possibilities my one life could hold. And terror, at the idea that I had wasted my one life. Sometimes I thought of this quote as I was feverishly entering data for my Capstone project at one in the morning, and I wondered, what am I doing with my life? If I have one life to live, shouldn’t I drop out of college now and start traveling? Dance in Mediterranean sunshine, climb the slick, black rocks facing the sea on the coast of Maine. And what if I wasn’t doing enough with my life to empower the lives of others?
I wasn’t looking for Mary Oliver when I went to Bayfield, and I wasn’t looking for that poem when I bought her book. I just happened to flip to her most famous poem, and when I got to the last two lines, I realized I recognized them. I had never read the quote in the context of the full poem before, and that completely changed my interpretation.
So I’m going to read the poem for you now. It’s called “The 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?
I love that Mary Oliver starts off with this enormous question—”who made the world?”–and within a few lines, she’s down to this tiny grasshopper. Not grasshoppers in general, but this grasshopper. The one in her hand. And she notices the sideways movement of the grasshopper’s jaws, and she notices its pale forearms, and her love for this creature is in the act of noticing its tiny details.
She says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” And I think that I don’t know what my one wild and precious life has in store for me, but I do know that I can pay attention. I think that creating a better world for others and for myself starts with paying attention. Science is the tool I have chosen to create that world. Scientists get a bad rap for being cold and calculating, but that could not be farther from the truth. Science is all about giving your attention. I was lucky enough to be in a fish and wildlife techniques class this May term, and I loved listening to my peers murmuring softly to the animals we had captured as we collected data. Devotional attention in science means that when you go out in the field and you measure the length of a salamander, you handle her gently and you wash your hands in the pond so that you become a part of her world. And you look at her and say, “Little salamander, you look like you are carrying the stars on your skin. I am so lucky to have met you today.”
Paying attention is the first step in building strong communities, in supporting one another and advancing human rights. When someone says to you, I am hurting, and I feel like my life doesn’t matter in the eyes of this society, do you acknowledge them but then talk over them? Do you say, well, all lives matter, and walk away? Or do you say, I believe you, and I am listening.
When I look at the years I have ahead of me, there is so much I want to do. I want to be a scientist and a writer. I want to visit every country, learn all languages living and dead, protest every injustice, read every book. I think I am a person who will always want more time. But the time I have is finite. Mary Oliver asks, “What else should I have done?” It feels like a rhetorical question. I think that while you worry about not doing enough with your one life, that one life passes you by.
So this is what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life. I plan to pay attention. I plan to kneel down in the grass and watch the bumblebees drifting from one clover flower to another. I plan to look for the humanity in every face that passes by. I have broader plans, yes, but plans often change. And even if all my plans go off the rails and I lose everything that is important to me, I will still have the moon, and resilient maple seedlings pushing through the sidewalk cracks, and the potential energy of strangers. You don’t need to carry out enormous plans to live a life worth living. All you need to do is pay attention. So go out into the world, and be awake.