Twenty people from around the globe: Canada, Chile, India, and the northeast USA: MA, ME, NJ, NY, PA gathered in our narrative Clearing to piece together possible meanings in a nineteen-line poem by Mary Oliver.
“The Summer Day” slowed us, focused us into moments of deep awareness in the presence of the speaker–someone heard as a young girl, another as the grasshopper mentioned in the poem, another as a deity, and still another as Mary Oliver. Whoever spoke, they brought our attention to an individual creature, to many presences and wonders in nature.
Two different voices read the text out loud for us before we each contributed our piece of the puzzle – whether “corner pieces” or center pieces that added to the picture we built together. We started off by acknowledging “how intentional the grasshopper is”. Another participant envisioned a conversation unfolding, and particularly revolving around “how to be idle and blessed”. Next, we looked at the title and its relationship to the poem. We think of the summertime “as that time when our life slows down”, someone said. It’s one in which “we are able to contemplate these ideas” about what it means to live and be in the world. Many agreed, reflecting on how the pandemic, and staying at home, has altered our timeline this year. One participant noted the extraordinary nature of the “good life” presented in this poem: “How often will someone tell you that a grasshopper is a “really good quality way to spend a day”? Some else shared admiration for the message conveyed in the poem, pointing out how much they loved the phrase “I do know how to fall down”; we “usually think about rising up” and “the only time we think of falling, is the time we fall in love”.
Several participants offered intertextual references: the Book of Job (wondering if the final lines of the poem represents God confronting a complaining Job and inquiring what the man intended to do with the rest of his life), Anais Nin, and Annie Dillard, a prose writer who glories in the natural world.
In addition to aspects of space (in tall grass), we looked at time. The title immediately lets the reader know the season. One person drew our attention to the way in which the poet parses time into moments. Primarily in the present moment of “slow looking” and “close reading” a grasshopper, the speaker points to a future moment–a moment we will all come to–the moment of death, which prompts the speaker’s need to question how the “I” and “you” spend time.
This session, we offered two prompts, asking participants to select one:
– “Write about what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
– “Write about what you pay attention to.”
Our first reader shared a list, an eight-point actionable plan of how the writer wants and already does spend the time of her life. The facilitators were reminded that lists are genres as well; we thoroughly enjoyed following along. We had previously observed how Mary Oliver offered “a breakdown of the day” into smaller pieces for us to enjoy; similarly, our author was able to make a life plan into a digestible list of items. Towards the end, the use of the present tense woven into the list served as a powerful reminder that plans start in the present. At the same time we as a group reflected on how, specifically in pandemic times, “plans are just hopes for the future” (as conveyed by a gorgeous recent piece recently published by our creative director Nellie Herman: “Plans, now, are really just hopes. But isn’t this always true? Wasn’t it always folly to think otherwise?)
Participants offered several wonderful comments about sound following the reading in which a voice reveals loss of cognitive ability to decipher words and how the sound still conveys meaning (hence the resolution to “now rely on your music”). We talked about developmental skills gained and lost from infancy until the end of life. We reminded each other about the importance of music for people in nursing homes (iPAD Project), how we can listen to poetry in a language we don’t speak yet appreciate rhythm and sounds expressing something that moves us. Someone chatted in that they don’t understand German or Italian but can listen to opera for hours. Someone else pointed out that “after all, we do learn language through sounds”, to which another participant shared how “voice may very well be our fingerprint” given the unique sounds and music each of us contributes to the world.
Another reader wrote about paying attention to “people and plans and not things.”, sharing simultaneously the difference between their approach through life and that of their life partner. Many in the group were able to empathize with the struggle of “syncing up with our partners” even when they prioritize or pay attention to different things. Our reader pointed out how paying attention is like “necessary nutrition”: “eating, feeding oneself with wonder.”
As our session came to a close, we returned to Mary Oliver’s invitation to slow down, soaking in the wonder of what someone described as the “grandiousness of the universe” and the “small size of the insects”. As we signed off, we each chatted in something we were taking away with us from this session into the week. We’d like to share some with you below, in the hopes that you can carry these with you into the week as well.
- “The joy of paying attention”
- The “root of everything” – “look closely at nature”
- “A sense of wonder” and “a wonderful reminder of the constant availability of wonder”
- “Listening for the music and the words”
- “How to choose what to do with my wild and precious life”
- “Connection and peace”
- “A grateful heart”
- “The beautiful circle of life”
Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.
Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!
Please join us for our next session Wednesday, August 5th at 12pm EDT, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.
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?
from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA
Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver.
All rights reserved.