Mary Oliver’s line, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? seems to be quoted everywhere of late. It speaks of living a life of one’s own design, a design that unleashes the wild and precious rather than the banality of slugging through our days intent on keeping a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. It speaks of something wondrous that’s out there if we only let go of our need to conform and live from our true center, our spirit.
Not too far into retirement I found myself often wondering what was wild and precious but dormant in me. My life was not exciting. I moved between my own home, the library, the health club, my children’s homes, and the homes of friends, with an occasional trip out of town. Not the stuff of wild and precious, of that I was certain. And here I was, free to find the wild and precious and live it.
But how do I find that which lies dormant in me, that which yearns for expression in my life? Or perhaps I already have it, perhaps in the routine I’ve pressed upon my days. I suspect, however, that routine, while affording stability, suppresses experimentation about what might be dormant. . . and yet “a girl can dream.”
The dream went something like this. . .
She spent the entire summer dreaming of Wales. It made no sense, this yearning to leave her settled life, her children, her easy routine. Yet in her fantasies, it made all the sense in the world. She could start over, no, not start over but be born anew, without memory in a lush, beautiful place, where people speak in a language that she would have to learn—as a baby learns language from birth.
In August she booked her ticket. She bought an enormous suitcase and packed it with her clothes. She told her children she was taking a long trip—how could she tell them her truth, that she sought a new land, a new beginning? How long will you stay, they asked, but she avoided the question. I’ll be back when I’m ready. . .
The plane landed in Heathrow, not Wales. Wandering a bit felt right. Like Odysseus seeking his home, she sought a new home and an adventure on the way. Why had she brought such a big suitcase, she thought as she pulled it outside to find a taxi to the train station. What had she been thinking? But wasn’t that the point? To not think but to wander and live on the way?
The taxi driver left her suitcase on the curb, and she dragged it inside. The train timetable clicked with suggestions. Where in Wales should she go? She settled on Llangollen—how many words have four “l’s”—“l” for living. She pulled the suitcase to the platform. She would need to drag it through two train changes, if she was reading the itinerary correctly. Maybe she should just leave the suitcase here. It was still baggage from her old life. She could buy new clothes in Wales—Welsh clothes. But still, money was money, and she wasn’t sure how far hers would go in her new life.
The train ride was exhausting. For each of the two changes, she bounced the suitcase down to the platform and dragged it up and onto the next train. She slept when she could and stopped counting stations, staying awake just enough so as not to miss her stop.
And the dream of a wild and precious life stops somewhere about here. . .
Is this what it would be like? Is it real or an escape? What I wonder is whether and how we lose the will to live that which is wild and precious in service to work, family, security, and whatever else haunts us. Then, suddenly—and it seems sudden—we are retired, free but with baggage that we are reluctant to leave on the train platform, baggage that must be hauled up and down with every new step we take. And how do we reconcile baggage with possibility?