Mary Oliver’s question keeps returning. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Like the question from Thomas Merton, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” Returning isn’t quite the word; the questions are always hovering, watching, ready to dive on me the moment they sense distractedness or ambivalence or that certain Laodicean lukewarmness that overtakes me occasionally (Rev. 3:15-16). It’s also the question that nudges me toward whatever wisdom of heart I may be ready to grow into when I consider the shortness of my life (Psalm 90:12).
But today advice from Parker Palmer is more likely to accompany those questions. Palmer counseled, before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, ask it what it intends to do with you. And now I’m thinking I should hardly if at all tell my life what I intend to do with it. It’s a full-time effort, discerning what life is trying to do with me – is doing with me – being present, attentive, and responsive, as fully as I’m able, to life as it happens.
It seems I don’t know much these days, but I’m coming to suspect a lot. And one of the things I suspect is that the wisdom of heart that comes with my growing awareness of the shortness of life feels a lot like the wisdom Patricia Ryan Madson writes about in her book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. “Life is an improvisation,” she writes, “and if we are lucky, a long one. It may end unexpectedly, and for some, too soon. . . . I know that improvisation has nothing to do with wit, glibness, or comic ability. A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.”
If I can do simply that, bringing to the place for which it was made my one small piece of the puzzle – no small task! – maybe I can surrender my concern for everything else.