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?
Seems that I never have time to write articles anymore. Too busy, too focused on so many projects—all of which I love, but Summer Solstice is sacred for me, so here I am, with the keyboard under my fingers and a copy of Mary Oliver’s New And Selected Poems in front of me. Every Summer Solstice I return to “A Summer Day,” and as I sat in the park this morning staring at Boulder’s magnificent Flatirons, those words, “idle and blessed,” leapt out at me after who knows how many hundreds of times I’ve read the poem.
And so why am I writing an article about this instead of climate catastrophe, a possible impending war with Iran, human beings in cages at the US/Mexico border, or farmers in the US Midwest going bankrupt and ending their lives? Why aren’t I busy starting a new book or scheduling my fall travel itinerary or setting up an interview?
On Summer Solstice I always come back to this poem, and if I begin reading it aloud, I’m already crying at the end of the first sentence: “Who made the world?” Why the tears—particularly on that question? Strangely, the most important word in that question is not “who,” but “made.” It is a question of “pure amazement” which is another phrase Oliver uses in other places. It is brimming with innocence and awe. It is the sigh of speechless reverence—pure worship as she declares that “I know how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass.” And then, “how to be idle and blessed.”
When I come to “made” the lump forms in my throat because my next thought is “destroyed”—who destroyed the world? If anyone, anywhere fully experiences this kind of awe—the kind that pulls us to our knees weeping with “pure amazement,” it is not possible for them to destroy the world. It’s a visceral response that has nothing to do with the head or brain or how fast the ice is melting or how much methane is drenching our daily lives. It is a grief that is nothing less than one’s own personal death.
And so on this luminous, numinous, incandescent day—on the one day of year when the light lasts longest, and the dark which has been restrained for six months now begins its slow, steady devourment of the light on its way to Winter Solstice, the cells of my body are resplendent with aliveness. And in the very same moment, I begin to sob with the grief of losing summer, the grief of losing the world, and the grief of my own departure from the planet. I celebrate the grief because it means that all of that mattered, that I am committed to the “dying wise,” of which Stephen Jenkinson writes.
According to Jenkinson, “The question is not ‘are we going to fail?’ The question is ‘how are we going to fail’?” In other words, he says, “The question is what shall be the manner of our inability to care for what was entrusted to us? Because how we fail matters.” It is not that we die, but how we die. We can die wisely, or we can just die. We can just be made extinct, or we can be made extinct wisely.
I assume no reader of “A Summer Day” has failed to notice the poet’s unswerving progression from the ecstasy of the fullness of life and the Earth on the longest day of the year and her schoolgirl innocence in being, as she writes in another poem, “a bride being married to amazement,” toward death. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
So as we hold that summer flower in our hand, we hold death in our hand. As the fragrance fills our nostrils, so too does the stench of death. And so, Oliver is now completely justified in asking the question that we would have never suspected at the beginning of the poem when she was intoxicated with the ecstasy of life: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
When all is said and done and all the volumes on grief have been written, it only comes down to three words: Grief is love. And when we love something, the only human response is to grieve the hell out of it.
Can you allow summer to sink into the marrow of your bones today? That won’t be possible without being idle and blessed in nature. Can you hold the ecstasy of a resplendent summer day alongside your death? Can you “fall on your knees and praise” and also fall on your knees and grieve? To do so is to fail wisely and die wisely. It is also to make holy, hallowed, and sacred your one wild and precious life and the one wild and precious life of this planet.