Thursday, December 31, 2009

One Wild and Precious Life

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
--Mary Oliver

I can’t remember the first time I read Mary Oliver’s question but this week when I rediscovered her poem I remembered how much I love these lines. What do I plan to do with my precious and wild life. It’s a little overwhelming to think about it in the big broad sense of years and years so I think that’s where I get hung up and then paralyzed. Maybe the way to the paralysis is to focus on tiny increments of time. Like the AA “one day at a time“. I can attest the One Day…One Minute…One Second at a time thing works because it’s the only reason I’m not puffing on a Marlboro light (that and it’s no degrees outside and smoking in the house was absolutely verboten).

All of this “life what does it mean to me” naval gazing I’ve been doing this week has vividly remind me of a pivotal moment in my early twenties. The summer just after college graduation was an amazing time in our lives: some of us had just graduated from nursing school and were beginning to negotiate what it meant to be a Nurse; others of us had just graduated from medical school and now after years of school Real Life was about to begin. We were poised on the edge of everything and when you are that young and brash The Edge Of Everything was so terribly Important and everything we thought and felt was so Terribly Important. I can still see myself that evening, sitting next to my friend Cliff--the one of us who was actually working and engaged in a Real Life--we were sitting close to one another, intwined and if you came upon us we would be mistaken for lovers. I remember pulling away from him and looking squarely at him as I intoned my fervent desire: “I want to lead a remarkable life.”
I’ll never forget the amused look Cliff shot at me with his wizened twenty-eight year old eyes when sagely remarked: “Shit, June of course you want a life like that. No one wants to be remembered for banality.” Fabulous, I was actually ordinary in my striving to be out of the ordinary. In the moment I hated Cliff for his remark; now it makes me laugh because his retort was dead on. I was a pompous git.

My life has had it years of banality but the last decade has been anything but banal. Now that I’ve got all the growing up and putting on and throwing out bits over with, it’s time to do something with this person I have become. But I am is dangerously close to becoming complacent as I simply place one foot in front of the other. I’m not discontent. Yet. If I allow myself to become existentially stuck I will become complacent. The complacency I speaking to is when I do what I’m supposed to do because I’m supposed to do it because that’s just what I do even if it makes me miserable and feels like my soul is being sucked out of the side of my head. I don’t mean a sort of Peter Pan reaction: “I don’t want to grow up! I always want to be a boy!“ I’m speaking to just keeping my head down and doing what is deemed right and correct by others rather than what my heart is asking after. When I get to points like this in my life I picture myself walking down a sidewalk, my head down; missing the houses and buildings and flora off in the distance because I’m concentrating on my feet. But it’s equally tempting to look way way off on the horizon and I forget to notice the cracks on the sidewalk forming their own microcosmic road map. The key is changing my gaze every few steps; remembering to look at the horizon and then down at my feet. Rob Brezsnky addresses this in Capricorn’s horoscope. Not my sun sign but it’s just damn good advice. (Most horoscopes are just that: sound advice)

"I am a man of fixed and unbending principles," said American politician Everett Dirksen, "the first of which is to be flexible at all times." That's the kind of playful and resilient spirit I urge you to aspire to in 2010, Capricorn. I think you're most likely to have a successful year if you regularly explore the joys of improvisation. The more empirical and less theory-bound you're willing to be, the better you'll feel. Practicing the art of compromise doesn't have to be galling, I promise you; it may even turn out to be more fun and educational than you imagined possible.

It’s impossible to plod along staring at one’s feet if you improvise now and then. A spontaneous act now and again always serves to enhance my contentment.

Luckily I’ve stopped beating myself with a stick for taking so many years to figure out that a principled, stable life doesn’t equal a banal life. Mary Oliver’s sense of the word “wild” has more to do with the “amazing or incredible” sense of the word. My favorite definition of wild is: “to grow unchecked: and I think “fanciful” is the most evocative for Oliver’s ideal of “wild”. This past year, I’ve come dangerously close to allowing my old friend Fear and her henchman Indecision to limit my growth. I picture fear as a bully who comes up behind me and grasps me by my coat collar, preventing me from running away until I can slip from my coat and stumble forward. Life doesn’t have to be scary in it’s uncertainty. I believe it’s the Zen Buddhists who believe uncertainty is an absence of faith. And didn’t C.S. Lewis attest when there is a lack of faith there is a lack of joy? Fear is certainly the big buzz kill in my life. I love to blame a lack of time or money or intellect but that’s a handy excuse for fear.

Brezsny’s predictions for my sun sign made me wince and squirm a little because “deluded rationalization” is another expression of my fear.

The philosopher Nietzsche said there was no middle ground: You either said "yes" to life or you said "no." You either celebrated your vitality, enjoyed your power, and thrived on challenges, or else you practiced constant self-denial, hemmed yourself in with deluded rationalizations, and tormented yourself with indecision. I'm not so sure it's always as clear-cut as that. While I'm usually in the "yes to life" camp," I've gone through "no to life" phases, as well as some extended "maybe to life" times. What about you, Pisces? Whatever you've done in the past, I hope that in 2010 you will take maximum advantage of the cosmic rhythms, which will be encouraging you to give life a big, resounding, ongoing YES.

It’s time to say yes. Time for me to live like I’m dying. My ipod gave me this song yesterday while I was thrashing my knees running on the treadmill. Tim McGraw’s song is sound advice even if you aren’t staring 49 in the face or shaking hands with a dire diagnosis. He sang to me about a man who discovered what it meant to live each day like a special gift and all the things he was doing with his life as a result of knowing he was dying. This man was going to “love deeper. . .speak sweeter. . .gave forgiveness I’d been denying. . .“ And he jumps out of an airplane, climbs a mountain and rides a mechanical bull (it’s a country song, of course there is a mechanical bull involved, duh) If I had been given a dire diagnosis I can assure you the chorus to my song would not include healthy activities like mountain climbing or fishing. Nope it would be a ballad to smoking cigarettes, dropping acid, maybe eating mushrooms and a sex club in Manila. (Ok, maybe not a sex club in Manila) Because a lethal prognosis calls for outrageous acts of previously unforeseen stupidity and danger. Because really? What‘s the worst thing that‘s going to happen? You might…I don‘t know…die? (you all think I’m joking don’t you.)

When McGraw got to the last few lines I had to stop running on the treadmill because I was about to cry and about to make an ass out of myself in the middle of the gym. I do not want to close out 2010 kicking myself in the ass because I’m not any closer to having the life I want simply because I am afraid to articulate and then act upon my heartfelt desire.

"And I took a good long hard look,
"At what I'd do if I could do it all again,
"And then:

Like tomorrow was a gift,
And you got eternity,
To think about what you’d do with it.
An' what did you do with it?
An' what can I do with it?
An' what would I do with it?

The question isn’t really all that hard; allowing yourself to act upon the answer is the challenge.

My resolution for 2010 is separating the can’ts from the won’ts.

Happy New Year!

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