I have never been a big reader of poetry. But when I do, I tend to love it. I embrace the imagery and the way those lean, clever words make me ponder. Four years ago, at Back to School Night, my daughter’s freshman English teacher read Mary Oliver ‘s The Summer Day (famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/mary_oliver) to the assembled parents. As a biologist and lover of literature, I cannot believe that I had never heard of this writer. She and I are kindred spirits, yet she unfolds the natural world in a way I have never experienced. After all, I took an Entomology class in college, so how could I not know that a grasshopper chews back and forth?
This learned woman who teaches high school English read this poem to us parents, just as she had guided our children through the verses on the first day of school, because of the message in this beautifully written poem. Each stanza draws us in and leaves the reader with a simple reminder: We only get one shot at life. On that night, with a room filled with mothers and fathers, this English instructor closed her book and issued a challenge: Pause and ask yourself a question, not just at weddings or funerals or when you ship your children off to college, ask yourself today this concluding line of Mary Oliver’s poem: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I shipped my youngest daughter off to college a few weeks ago. I know what I want to do with my life. I want to practice the craft of writing in the hopes that I, too, will capture the power of words — words that will make someone realize that death is inevitable, that every day is a gift, that each moment is an opportunity to reflect on the direction of one’s life. Until then, let me pass along Mary Oliver’s poignant phrase: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?