How to Be Idle and Blessed

I remember the first time I heard the line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” After contemplating the world of a grasshopper on a summer day, Oliver asks her reader if they know how to really pay attention, how to be still and quiet. The poem ends with an oft-quoted question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

A bunch of green asparagus spears in a brown wooden bowl on a butcher block table.
Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot these days, as we emerge from winter and tax season, as leaves start to spring onto branches and we start thinking about school ending and summer beginning.

When I first heart this question, I felt an urge to think about grand goals, wild dreams, and hopes beyond my imagination. I took it seriously, this call to live into my one and only precious life. I don’t want to waste a thing. What will I do with all these unexpected opportunities, with all that I’ve learned, with all that I hope to accomplish?

Suddenly this question turned into a to-do list. First, I’ll read these books. Next, I’ll take this class. Then, I’ll reflect about those experiences as I make a plan of action to implement my newfound knowledge. Last, I’ll be an expert in this new field, finding opportunities to share and participate in new conversations.

I don’t think those hopes and goals are unrealistic or out of the realm of possibility. But I do think I’ve completely missed the point of Mary Oliver’s question if that is my takeaway.

In the middle of the poem, before this famous question, Oliver notes,

I don’t know exactly what 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.

As we enter this season of spring cleaning, family recalibration, and these last weeks of the school year, I can let my list for what a One Wild and Precious Life looks like completely overwhelm the call to be idle and blessed.

I’m learning to balance this blessed observation and living in the present with the need to sit down and do the work. Sometimes the work is that playtime idleness my girls crave. Sometimes it’s the mundane chores of cleaning and cooking. And sometimes it’s the actual work of sitting and writing or crafting ideas to the page. Nothing is as set and clear as I’d like it to be.

I’m remembering this poem in this season of life, though. That my call is to deep observation. That learning takes years and often the outcomes aren’t what I was expecting.

This season of quiet and growth has lasted longer than I expected. I know that planting seeds and putting down roots can take years. I love what my friend Tina says about growing in the longterm. After she planted asparagus, which takes three years to produce, she reflected,

 It takes commitment to plant asparagus, and perseverance. More than that, it takes vision. To plant something right now that won’t bear fruit for years to come requires vision. It requires we trust that the good life is not always the immediate life. The beautiful life is not the quick life. Instead, it is the cultivated, grounded life. It is the life that believes in waiting for the fruit, in holding out hope that something good will come, and it is the belief that trusts in the work we cannot see with our eyes.

Tina Osterhouse, On What’s Saving My Life Right Now

So, to mix metaphors and ideas, I’m planting asparagus and fruit trees, I’m taking time to observe the grasshopper and small details, I’m leaning into this space of the quiet and quotidian.

I’m remembering to hold myself to a different standard, one that is more about planting and less about harvest. I’m doing the work, in hopes of a fruitful result but I won’t know for sure until late summer. And that’s the beauty of life and learning and gardening, isn’t it?

What are you planting this spring? Do you like growing quick lettuces, late season tomatoes, or longterm asparagus? How do you balance that waiting?