Seeking Connection: A tribute to a special hero

The Summer Day

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?

— Mary Oliver

One of my heroes died last week.

Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer-prize winner who offered accessible, spiritual guidance through her poems about the natural world, succumbed to lymphoma at the age of 83.

While my life-long wish to hear her read aloud shall not be fulfilled, I am eternally grateful for the solace of her poetry during my own personal season of spiritual searching.

I jokingly refer to the holy trinity of that season: Whitman, Rumi and Mary Oliver.

One of Oliver’s most recognizable quotes is from the poem above:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

This quote is all over social media, co-opted by motivational speakers, life coaches and cultural influencers, accompanied by the hashtags #wildandpreciouslife, #lifegoals and #hustleharder.

The line is a call to action, a plea to step into a huge life.

The general consensus is we need to stop apologizing for having ambition, we are responsible for setting and attaining audacious goals, life demands we step up and strive for success.

It’s a motivational plea to release limiting beliefs and tap into limitless possibilities.

It’s inspirational, self-help motivation at its most manic.

I agree we are not here to be average. We have the power to manifest our dreams.

But Oliver wasn’t talking about hustling or becoming an entrepreneur. The poem is about paying attention, about staying curious and grateful in a world that thinks it has all the answers, about being alone in the woods and looking about in astonished awe.

Her version of success was a life filled with quiet moments in nature.

As Ms. Oliver herself wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

She was an unwitting mindfulness coach. Her Muses were her dogs, the creek, the stars, the seasons, the loons on the lake.

She seemed endlessly disappointed by humanity (save for her beloved life partner Molly Malone Cook), but beautifully undone by her connection to the earth.

My favorite poem of Oliver’s is “Mysteries, Yes.”

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.
… How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Ms. Oliver leaves an inspiring legacy of paying attention as prayer, of mindfulness as a marker of success and purpose. Her life is a lesson in gratitude, an opportunity available to each of us regardless of age, race, religion, gender, political affiliation or cultural tradition.

In moments of nature, she found testimony to the presence of spirit and soul.

She taught the divine exists everywhere, if only we will open our eyes and look.

If she could speak beyond the grave, I doubt her advice would be about striving and pushing and goal crushing.

I suspect she would implore us to lace up our boots and simply go for a walk.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel. Follow her on Twitter @erinsmithauthor.