One Life, Wild and Precious


I first discovered the poet Mary Oliver about eight years ago,  when I was teaching sixth grade in a basement classroom in a small school that I loved and  that my children also attended. During my years teaching there,  I went through a difficult divorce, a complicated new relationship, and--just before sixth grade--a second marriage. I was in my late thirties and experiencing the kind of identity questions many of us face in those years, but perhaps substantially intensified by a half-decade of rapid-fire life changes. In addition to my teaching work, I was also writing and publishing a lot of material, but not the kind of material I was most called to be writing.  So although I no longer know with certainty which of Mary Oliver's poems was my "first ever,"  I do recall the one that first gripped me and sucked me under and tossed me about like an ocean wave-- again and again--until I found myself altered, however slightly. It was "The Summer Day." This poem snuck up on me, with its series of childlike questions followed by meticulous, contemplative, nearly scientific observations that build gradually to its breathtaking turn at the eleventh line. Its last two lines have seared a permanent mark on my psyche, one that continually compels and encourages me anew as I forage to find my way in this maze of a lifetime. I love this poem. Perhaps you will too.

The Summer Day

by 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?