There’s nothing like an out-of-control fatal virus to make you stop and give thanks for each day of your still-unfolding life.
Every year when I teach the five-day Writing & Thinking orientation workshop at Bard College/Simon’s Rock, I end by leading the students on a slow, silent, meditative walk in the woods, and before we set out we read Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines:
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?
The students think and write and share their responses to that final question, which is the part of the poem that leaps out at them—understandably, as they are poised on the threshold of an exciting new chapter in their lives, starting college two years earlier than most of their peers.
The more I read this poem, the more drawn I am to the earlier lines, though. I love Oliver’s humility in admitting, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” followed by the suggestion that prayer can take the form of communing wordlessly with the unmown fields and the grasshopper that Oliver observes “gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”
Fewer and fewer of us humans have the chance, these days, to simply relax into the natural world around us.
Fewer and fewer of us are even aware that we inhabit a natural world—or if we do think about it, it’s more in terms of annoyance (“the mosquitoes are so bad this year!”) or fear (“the seas are rising! What are we going to do?!”) or utility (“the Arctic ice is melting, let’s get an oil rig up there and start drilling!”).
Oliver’s insight that prayer can take the form of “blessed idleness” in nature seems key to me now. That’s the kind of religion we need more of today.
Not the hysterical fanaticism of the pseudo-religious Islamic State, which, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland screaming “Off with their heads!” at every opportunity, is turning the beheading of civilians into a spectator sport.
Not the Cain-and-Abel warring of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims; not the Christian capitalist posturing of “do unto others” while simultaneously creating wealth disparities just as vast as back in the days of feudalism, with inherited misery for the masses and inherited luxury for the few.
In creating a society that sees and understands itself through the mediation of computer screens, we have, in a few short generations, succeeded in cutting ourselves off from what we once knew: that we are an integral part of our planet, and indeed of our universe.
Humans are not that different from grasshoppers, or birds, or maple trees. Everything alive on Earth is made out of the same basic building blocks of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, fueled by the intense energy of our sun.
Without sun, water and oxygen-rich air, all of us will die.
It makes perfect sense to me that we humans should make our everyday lives into a prayer in honor of the Elemental Nature that sustains us.
Humans are the consciousness of the planet; we are the one species that can weigh actions in the present based on our knowledge of the past, our calculated predictions of the future, and our elaborate system of ethics.
If we could just pull our eyes away from our hypnotic screens more often and remember our kinship with every precious manifestation of life on our beautiful planet, it would become inconceivable that we could allow ourselves to destroy it all.
The quest to restore balance to our natural systems should become the Holy Grail of our time, with all the best and brightest on the planet dedicating themselves to the grand collective effort.
I wish every young person on the planet, but especially the brilliant, pampered, over-stimulated, often-jaded young people of privilege, could have the chance to sit in a field in blessed idleness on a lovely summer day and commune with a grasshopper.
If we would only pay attention, we would see in “her enormous and complicated eyes” the reflection of our own human souls.