Poet Mary Oliver asked a great question in the last two lines of "The Summer Day." The poem ends with:
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?
Obviously the question isn't for others to answer. Oliver addresses it to each of us, every reader of her poem. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I'm not sure why Oliver added the Tell me. The question remains the same without it. But I like that Tell me. It forges a bond between the poet and the reader. as does the previous Tell me, what else should I have done?
Frequently I have intimations of my mortality. This isn't just because I turned 70 a few months ago. Death always has been lurking around in my consciousness, sometimes scarily. Of course, death is impossible to ignore, given that everything which lives, dies.
What I'm talking about, though, when I speak of intimations, is this: I'll be doing something utterly ordinary, when suddenly I'm struck by a vivid awareness of the fact that life is limited and one day I will die.
I used to believe in life after death, but now I don't. However, that vivid awareness was just as strong -- maybe even stronger -- when I was a devotee of an Eastern form of mysticism that taught an immaterial soul survives physical death. Sure, I accepted that concept.
But since no one knows for sure what happens after we take our last breath (my bet now is nothing, because we're dead and gone forever), even the most fervent religious believer still has to face the stark reality that this life could well be, as Oliver says, our "one wild and precious life."
Last night my wife and I were watching TV. In the midst of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert a thought unexpectedly popped into my mind: Brian, you're doing to die one day. Should you be spending these precious present moments watching Colbert make jokes about Donald Trump?
It only took my mind a few moments to come up with an answer to my mind's own question. (Weird how the brain engages in conversations with itself.)
Sure. What would be better to do than what I'm doing right now?
Sort of like Mary Oliver, minus her refined poetic sensibilities, I responded to myself with a question that nonetheless contained an answer.
In my current churchless frame of mind it seems senseless to view any activity of life as lacking meaning. A few hours ago I walked our dog, ZuZu. When we got home, I grabbed a stick from a tree branch where I store our dog's favorite toy, high enough so she can't reach it.
Like most pet owners, I talk to ZuZu as if she speaks English. "Let's play stick, little dog!" My preparing to throw the stick was all she needed to get excited, the words being superfluous.
We then spent ten minutes or so engaged in her favorite game: not bringing a stick back, reverse fetching. I throw the stick. ZuZu runs and gets it. Then she runs away from me when I say, "Bring it here!" We repeat this until ZuZu lies down, with the stick nearby, for her other favorite activity: being patted.
Is playing stick what I want to do with my one wild and precious life? Absolutely. In fact, I consider that everything I'm doing, including writing this blog post, is what I want to do, given that I am doing it.
Circular reasoning? No.
I just have reached a point in my life where I consider that the whole Bucket List thing has no attraction for me, because it assumes that some things are really important to do before we die, while other things are less important.
In my opinion, and I'm really just speaking for myself, going down that way leads to, if not madness, dissatisfaction. When our doings are divided into less and more important, less and more meaningful, it seems to me that we're always questioning whether what we're engaged in is what we really should be doing.
I think Oliver's first question gets it just right: Tell me, what else should I have done?