Have I misunderstood Mary Oliver’s ‘your one wild and precious life’?

E. L. Skye
5 min readNov 22, 2020
Photo by Simon Godfrey on Unsplash

I can’t recall when was the first time I came across that line, it must have been years ago. But I remember it made me pause, and marvel, and inspired to make something of my life. I didn’t know who Mary Oliver was back then, or even that she was a poet, and I didn’t stop to think about the context in which she wrote these iconic lines,

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

I had come across this quote many times since, frequently in the context of some motivational talk or article. It gives me the chills every time. Most recently, I learned that it is the inspiration for the title of Megan Rapinoe’s recently published memoir, One Life. It was suggested by her publisher, perhaps as a way to speak to Rapinoe’s inspiring life and activism (the book is on my to-read list).

By now, I had learned that Mary Oliver was a great poet (who also happened to have lived a long life with her partner, Molly Malone Cook; a tidbit that, as a lesbian, I was thrilled to read about). I bought one of her collections last year, and had been slowly nibbling my way through her poems. Nibbling, because her poems are not only accessible to a lay reader like me, but also packed with so much wisdom and wonder that I always need to take a few moments to sit in awe and chew on them afterwards.

I had read the this particular poem in full a few times, and I dug it out to read it again. This time, in the midst of a pandemic and wallowing miserably in my appalling productivity throughout quarantine, the poem struck differently:

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 hands,

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?

— Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Oliver wasn’t hounding us to reach our highest potential or to make something of our lives. She saw beauty in the smallest, most ordinary of things — the actions of a grasshopper eating sugar out of her hands, described so vividly and tenderly. She knew how to pay attention, ‘how to be idle and blessed, / how to stroll through the fields, /which is what I have been doing all day.’

She was talking about being present and fully in the moment, noticing all the beauty around you. To me, the message seemed to be: the world is full of wonder, pay attention and enjoy it; don’t be too full of yourself because everything ends and often too soon. So, figure out what you want to do — fleeting as your life may be, it is still precious, and it can be as wild as you make it.

Once I realised that, I heaved a sigh of relief.

I haven’t been very productive since the pandemic started — I didn’t write the things I had wanted to write, I didn’t paint as much as I had hoped, I didn’t even read that many new books, though I did read a ton of fanfiction. Despite reading many articles about the importance of self-care and being compassionate to oneself, I can’t shake the lingering guilt that, as a single adult without any caretaking responsibilities, I should be a lot more productive than this in quarantine. After all, how could I be wasting my ‘one wild and precious life’, right?

But I have not been wasting my time. That I am anxious and afraid is precisely because I am paying attention to the world — there is so much injustice and sadness out there right now, and a lot of uncertainty about what the future looks like.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of people trying to do good, people who volunteer and organise and doing what they can to try and fix things one small step at a time. I pay attention to them too — reading their writings, listening to their podcast interviews, learning about their projects.

I am also paying attention to what my body needs, which is often a break from everything that is going on and the accompanying uncertainty. Perhaps that is why I have been rewatching old shows and reading fanfiction, because so much of them is familiar.

And I’m trying to pay attention, amidst the anxiety and fear and loneliness, to what my most important values are, and what I want to do with, yes, my one wild and precious life.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

It is a powerful question. I don’t begrudge all the motivational speakers or writers for taking it out of context in a bid to inspire their audience to achieve more (okay, maybe a little).

But I hope more people read the full poem, learn to appreciate the ordinary wonders around them like Oliver did, and hopefully, manage a few moments of being idle and blessed.


As a bonus, I highly recommend this interview with Mary Oliver on the podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett. It’s an intimate conversation, and Oliver read a few of her poems, some of which brought tears to my eyes.



E. L. Skye

Writer. Painter. Dreamer. Storyteller. Queer. Sometimes in that order. Recent transplant to San Franciso. Had lived in Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands.