As you likely know, famed poet Mary Oliver died recently. Oliver wrote many poems and one, “The Summer Day,” gets quoted frequently. The last two lines are: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
People regularly use that quote as an aspiration to live life to the fullest, but in the context of the poem, Oliver writes of a person who kneels in the grass and strolls through fields enjoying the summer day, asking, “Tell me, what else should I have done?”
All the poems I’ve read of hers have a certain poignancy as she reflects on the transience of life. But instead of lamenting this fact, she revels in it. I’ve been thinking about the transience of life, not only my own, but also as it relates to climate change.
As I write this, rain streaks down from the sky prompting coastal flood and high-surf warnings. Ice caps are melting. Scientists predict we’re hurtling toward another extinction. It raises fear, anxiety, and nihilism within me. I think about my nieces and nephews and feel sad they won’t experience the Earth the way I have. That they won’t know the wonder of witnessing countless fireflies lighting up a summer night. And yet the time we do have left, the fireflies that are still around, are worth enjoying.
I realize it’s always been true that people die, that one generation experiences something the next does not. But right now I think we’re experiencing a collective grief because we’re all undergoing the same loss at the same time. (However, I have to say some of us are getting hit harder than others.) Our grief is no longer solely personal because the world we live in is going through a metamorphosis. And that metamorphosis makes our lives wild and precious. Our lives are wild and precious because everything matters.
A monk friend of mine describes our spiritual philosophy as exactly that: Everything matters. In materialism, only matter matters. In idealism, nothing matters. But in tantra everything matters. It seems to me more and more of us are taking on that perspective, that everything matters. That everything is important. That everything is valuable and sacred. I’ve used this quote many times before but my spiritual teacher said, “If one ant meets a premature death, it will disturb the balance of the entire cosmos. Therefore, nothing here is unimportant, not even an ant.”
Even a tiny ant matters. From the smallest creature to the largest one, they all matter. And every moment matters as well. Not in a heavy, weighty sense, but rather each moment contributes to our life. The boring ones, the sad ones, the relaxing ones, the adventurous ones. They all make up our existence. They all make up our wild and precious life. If we have a little time left or a lot of time left, we can savor all of it as the beautiful and rare thing it is.
I dream of a world where we realize everything matters. A world where we remember the tiniest creature to the largest one matters. A world where we remember life is fleeting and we do our best to be present to it all. A world where we maintain perspective about our wild and precious lives.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.