Long before FOMO was a created term, I was a teenager who would lay awake while on overnights at friends’ houses, afraid that something would happen and I would miss out. Never mind that my friend and/or the whole sleepover crew were fast asleep. No matter that I was using TV to keep me awake. Life was happening and I was terrified of missing out.

Some 15 years after my last high school sleepover, I attended a sleepover for grownups: A weekend writing retreat, a casual gathering of four or five women camping out at a friend’s house, suggesting writing exercises to one another and then scattering around to see what else might arise. One participant, a deeply talented writer, made us bookmarks with the last two lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day:

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

Oh, what a call to action to my 30-something self! Yes, it is wild and precious to be alive and human! What am I doing with my life?!?

I hear iterations of this panicked sense of time slipping away, its full realization neglected, the grave slipping closer, the fear of regret so present, day after day and week after week in my coaching practice.

It’s a terrifying prospect, isn’t it? The one that says a lazy day today could mean profound regret down the road? What if, we wonder in the depths of our beings, we reach our final moments only to wish we had done more, experienced more and all while it’s too late?

Yet more years passed, as they do, and somehow, I came to read the entirety of the poem excerpted on those bookmarks:

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?

This, then, is not a call to action but a call to presence.

This was the call accepted by the mother of French author Colette who, when in the final years of her life (final year, as it so happens) and invited to visit her daughter, wrote in response:

I’m not going to accept your kind invitation, for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is probably going to flower. It’s a very rare plant I’ve been given, and I’m told that in our climate it flowers only once every four years, Now, I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.

One might project into Colette’s shoes and imagine feeling rejected by the choice to witness a cactus bloom rather than spend time with her precious daughter but what Colette wrote of her mother – and particularly this letter – was this:

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter—that letter and so many more that I have kept. This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love…

These lives of ours are, indeed, wild and precious… and, despite all the marketing messaging to the contrary, bound to be incomplete, inevitably.

Despite always having 2-3 books going at a time, my To Read list only grows longer…

Despite reaching out to loved ones regularly, I inevitably feel as though I could have done more when I lose one to death or the friendship’s dissolution…

Despite planning and dreaming and doing and squirreling away money, I will go to my own grave with dreams unrealized, with decisions made having inevitably prohibited other options…

This could be tragic, could feel tragic, could be seen as such.

Or this could just be reality, an essential aspect of the inevitable imperfection of life.

We could rail against and grieve for and stamp our feet about the limitations of our human lifetimes.

Or we could drive to an overlook, as Theresa took me to this past weekend, and eat tomato sandwiches garnished with salt and pepper packs leftover from long-ago takeout meals, discovered in the glovebox at just the right time. We could marvel at the heart/tush shaped bread making a particular delight of the sandwich, eating it tilted forward so that the mixed tomato juice and mayo drip onto the ground rather than onto clothing.

We could treat our one wild and precious life as a place to be as fully as possible, rather than a challenge to best.

And you, friend? What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

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