Photo by Robert Root
Wild and Precious
In Wisconsin, when I enter her house and call hello, my granddaughter Lilly, nearly three, shouts “Grandpa!” and runs laughing to clasp my knees; I lift her up, her arms encircle my neck, and we squeeze one another. In Florida, a few days later, as I step out of the guest room, my granddaughter Eliza, nearly two, sees me, smiles, and runs from the kitchen to hug my knees; it’s the first time she’s done this, and as I lift her, I try to smile at her mother without letting my eyes fill with tears.
I feel these moments as blessings but think of them as synchronicity, moments in a juxtaposition that tell me to pay attention. A synchronicity is a coincidence of events that feel meaningful to the person experiencing them, even if that person doesn’t know why they feel meaningful.
* * *
Cheryl Strayed starts Part Five of Wild with a quotation from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” It startled me when I read it. The epigraph is appropriate enough for that section of the memoir, but it set off a diverting series of reverberations in me.
I’d first encountered those lines decades before in the emails of a friend with whom I’d once been intimate. It had been a recurring quote below her signature. Each time I’d read it, it seemed a pertinent question. I soon found the quote in emails from other friends and acquaintances, as if I’d blundered into a far-flung community of like-minded people, generous and encouraging, eager to offer inspiration. At first the power of the lines was enhanced by the deep affection I felt for that friend, but over time they read to me like a haiku or like a Zen koan, something that made you pause and consider whether you were rewarding your spirit with the choices you were making, with what you were doing with your life.
Once or twice I wondered if I, too, should have a tagline for my emails, likely something from Thoreau. The first that came to mind, “We live meanly, like ants: our lives are frittered away in detail,” struck me at once as less uplifting than Oliver’s lines. The other Thoreau quotation that stayed in my head was closer in spirit to hers: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived at all.” Thoreau reminds us of a limit on the time we have. So, it turns out, does Oliver. In the line that precedes the closing lines of “The Summer Day,” she asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” No one wondering “what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life” had quoted that line before it, which adds a note of urgency to the planning.
Who we are and where we are in our lives affects the way we read all literature. When I encountered Oliver’s quote again in Wild, I was surprised to be startled. In decades past I had smiled fondly and nodded sagely each time I read it, but nowadays I tend more to ponder how deliberately I’ve lived and what I’m likely to discover when I come to die. Nowadays I’m more aware that everything dies at last—“and too soon.” Instead of asking ourselves what we plan to do, perhaps a time comes when the question should be “What have you done with your one wild and precious life?”
I liked the question better when my options were open, and I hadn’t already chosen between those roads diverging in the dark wood in the middle of my life’s journey (to completely muddle my poetic references). In truth, I often read that epigraph in light of the lost friendship of the person who introduced me to it, a loss in large degree my fault. And so I read it now with twinges of regret, and all my regrets begin to pool around it and rise to the surface. Surely Oliver didn’t mean the poem to be accusatory; surely my life hasn’t entirely been missteps and mistakes.
Granted, my one life hasn’t been wild; it’s been ploddingly productive in a modest, largely unobtrusive way, and easy to plan, following academic calendars, publishing deadlines, and conference dates. Not so much living deliberately as living—what? complacently? placidly? In “The Summer Day” the narrator’s comments are prompted by intimations that her activity—calmly holding her palm open while a grasshopper feeds from it—isn’t a significant use of her time. But what makes our limited lives precious may be just such unplanned and spontaneous moments.
Like the moments when my granddaughters rush up to hug my knees. How can I account for the unplanned blessing of those moments? How can I not be humbly grateful for them? If I put them on one side of the scales, I find I can lighten the weight of regrets on the other side.
But I didn’t know this at once after encountering the Oliver quotation again. It was something synchronicity and my granddaughters had to teach me.
* * *
In Florida, Eliza, now two, lets me push her in a swing attached to a tree in her front yard and listens to me sing. When I get to the end of lines in “The Wheels on the Bus,” I hear her quietly echo the last words—“round and round,” “swish, swish, swish,” “shh, shh, shh.” When I sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” she indistinctly mutters some of the lyrics. I see her hands moving, fingers wiggling for the spider’s climb up the waterspout, the rain coming down, the sun coming out, and the spider climbing again. She smiles and looks at my hands, expecting me to do the finger motions with her, and laughs when I do.
In Wisconsin, a few days later, Lilly, now three, sits with me at the counter island in her kitchen, finishing her lunch. She asks me to sing and after a couple of nursery rhymes I start “The Wheels on the Bus,” which she knows well. Her fingers wag back and forth like the wipers on the bus, and she holds two forefingers to her lips for the shushing. She asks for “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and readies her hands for the finger motions, singing along with me and with her eyes encouraging me to do the hand gestures, too. She smiles approvingly as I raise my fingers.
Maybe the question to ask at the end is: Acknowledging that you have regrets, are you content with what you’ve done with your one wild and precious life? Happily enough, I am not startled to find that I am.