My scriptural canon includes lines of poetry, refrains from songs, bits of phrasing that I encounter in books, conversations, fragments of memory, manifestors, stories told and retold. One piece of scripture I turn to almost daily comes from the poem “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…”
Years ago a dear friend shared a bit of wisdom her therapist had shared with her: If you find yourself awash in the phrase “I don’t know,” shift your attention toward what you do know.
Last month, in the company of my middle and youngest niblings, I used the word exquisite to describe something they were making, and they asked me what it meant, and the first words out of my mouth were, “I don’t know.” Then, “Wait. I don’t really know the definition. But I think we know what exquisite means. Beautiful. Wonderful. What makes us go ‘ooooh,’ and ‘aaaaaah,’ and ‘yes.’ Stuff so good we want to share it.” We started going around naming things that are exquisite, and the experience was, itself, exquisite. Ice cream. The ocean. The sky. The sound cows make. Oreos. Climbing things. Making things. Smelling fresh herbs. Music. A butterfly. The sound of birds singing. Toots. Taking care of each other so we don’t need to call the police. So much exquisiteness. (And, I have since come to know: exquisite, from the latin exquirere, that which we seek out. Perhaps, even: that which we are wise to pay attention to.)
This week I am on my first backpack camping trip. It’s something I have wanted to experience for a long time, but I have been deterred by all I don’t know: about gear, and traveling light, and purifying water, etc. But I do know that I am drawn toward the company of trees, and bodies of water, and adventure, and sleeping under the night sky, and learning what excess I am scared to lose but wise to learn I can live without. So, when the right friend invited me, I said yes to seeking out the Superior Lake Hiking Trail, along with two other people I’ve not yet met. I don’t know what exactly we’ll experience, but I do know I’m already glad I said yes.
This season of life is marked by major transitions and swirling intensities, uncertainties that are saturated by loss, and also opening into fresh possibilities for repatterning. Which means it is a season with no shortage of pain, and also invitations into healing. I don’t know exactly what healing looks like, or how to do it, but I do know that crying is an exquisite way to release toxins, and when we have people who will sit with us while we cry we’re blessed, and drinking water restores us at a cellular level, and breathing deep moves in rhythm with Spirit, and each inhale opens lifeforce in us and each exhale is an opportunity to let go, and letting go, in some way, is almost always a prerequisite for healing.
I still don’t know exactly how to belong in a world so structured by systems hellbent on destruction, extraction, violence, and greed, but I do know that one night when everything was breaking open and a dream was being lost, I stepped out onto the porch only to be greeted by fireflies and stars and a bag full of peaches, sweetcorn, and single, perfect tomato, and a note about “baller produce” and this offering of “a small cornucopia,” and it couldn’t guard against a lost dream, but it was also, too, a dream come true.
I also don’t know exactly how to heal my heart when it’s broken, but I do know that while I was wondering over this question, a neighbor sent this song, about drifting awhile in order to feel the sun and know love, and also a text about life being so fast and brambly but how we, in connection, keep trying to get slow and feel all the beauty, and it didn’t unbreak my heart but it also did, a little, too.
And so no, Mary Oliver, I don’t know exactly what I plan to do with my “one wild and precious life,” but I know life keeps unfolding, and it is indeed wild, and precious, and moving so fast, and as they say–so many wise ones from so many places and times and contexts–no one knows everything, but together we know a lot, and each day there are so many sacred invitations and encounters seeking us out: pay attention; love the world; share beauty; open to pleasure, breathe into pain; drift together in poetry and song and dream. Exquisite practices, exquisite practitioners, exquisite possibilities for exquisite lives.
Anna Blaedel (they/them) is co-director and co-founder at enfleshed, where they tend to the theopoetic intersections of spiritual, academic, and activist engagement. Anna chaplains University of Iowa students, and is a doctoral candidate in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division on Religion. Waking before dawn, lingering in poetry, being an aunt, retreating to the woods or their basement woodshop, tending the garden, sharing silence, and feeding people delicious food are some of Anna’s favorite things.