By Scott Cullen, Worship Associate
You start with a poem, The Summer Day, from Rev. Kim’s go-to poet, Mary Oliver. Then you ask nine members of the congregation from age 10 to age 90 to reflect on the question posed by Oliver at the end of the poem, and the result is a magical and memorable New Year’s Day service.
Here’s a link to Oliver’s poem: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Because of a New Year’s Day rental taking place in our sanctuary, the setting was The Crossing’s Room, a space that once served as our worship space. For those of us who remember when, worshipping once again in this space elicited fond memories of more than 20 years ago. For those who joined after the current sanctuary was built, it was an opportunity to experience the way we were.
Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The speakers reflecting on that question, in chronological order by age, included Julia Campbell, Keziah Groth-Tuft, Kelsey Swanson, Bob Alt, Christine Piatek, Lou Csaby, Kevyn Malloy, Tony Panzetta, and Ruth Samsel.
Their reflections allowed each of us, no matter what our age, to further reflect on how we might have answered that question at various decades in our own lives—and how we might answer that question as we enter a new decade of life.
As the Worship Associate that morning, it was a privilege to share Rev. Kim’s words and Mary Oliver’s poem with the congregation and have a front row seat to hear the nine members of our congregation bravely and joyfully reflect on their plans for their one wild and precious life.
If you missed the service, or were there and would like to enjoy those nine reflections again, here they are in chronological order:
I want to make a difference in someone’s life, to brighten someone’s day, and support them in hard times. My wish is that someone out there will remember me, not for some huge, momentous achievements, but because I made their life better than it would have been without me in it.
If you ask my Mom, and pretty much anyone who knows me, they would say I am a planner. For much of my life, I have had a general idea of where I want to go, what I want to do with my “wild and precious life,” but I also think it doesn’t hurt to have some uncertainty. Doing the most with your life, as far as I can see it or want to think about, is about having a direction, but also being able to stop and switch directions, to be open to new opportunities and allowing yourself to take advantage of them. You don’t want to be so scheduled and planned out that you miss the very things that make life exciting, wild, and precious.
For example, 11th grade is when the questions of “what do you want to do after high school?” and for me, “What are your top picks for colleges?” and a little bit of “What do you want to study?” And I had an answer for all of these, even the what do you want to study one, which any liberal arts tour guide will point out may change two to three, or even five, times in your first year or so. Mine didn’t, but that doesn’t mean my life was locked in from the day I declared my International Studies major. International Studies—that’s right—the study which expands the borders of nations, not just international relations or international politics. Pretty broad right? and seven semesters later, my studies are still across the board—sustainability, Arabic minor, security studies—there is no clear one path.
This way, I can look for a variety of opportunities as I begin to answer the question, what are you going to do after this graduation? My answer, “Go to school.”
Go to school for the next four years, first into a one year masters in human rights and environmental law and then a three-year JD program. I know this sounds pretty planned out, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty that will be filled in as time passes and new opportunities peek their heads out. Where do I want to go to law school? I don’t even know for sure I want to attend one in the States, but that’s what makes life both purposeful and wild at the same time.
The goal of the next four years, some kind of policy work; I want to play a part in the UN climate change negotiations so that I end up spending two weeks out of each year in a new place, getting barely any sleep and attending wild amounts of meetings and negotiations and presentations, and demonstrations with colleagues all around the world, working through our common interests of the environment and human rights. Attending the past three talks in Lima, Paris, and Morocco has underlined for me the importance of NGOs, IGOs, national delegations, human rights organizations, and the secretariat so really, even within this goal, there are still vast amounts of unanswered questions, or really, open opportunities for shaping my wild and precious life.
It wasn’t how I was supposed to react. I recognized it at the time, but didn’t feel like I could help it.
On my 30th birthday my husband gathered friends and family from near and far to throw me a surprise party. When I unsuspectingly walked into my house that afternoon to see the entire downstairs filled with people I love, I was simply without reaction.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want people there or wasn’t super appreciative to my husband for the surprise, I was just pretty sure I couldn’t actually be having a birthday because that would make me 30 and put me into the decade of REAL adults.
That experience proved, to my dismay, that while very much on the older end, I am a Millennial, and slow to accept my ‘grown-up’ status. Even though I was a pregnant woman walking into the house that I owned with my husband and in which we lived with our toddler, I was still shocked and disturbed to become 30. So…what was I so afraid of?
By the time one is 30, they should have life figured out, right? As a parent and a professional educator I should have the answers. I should be fully formed. The ‘wild’ aspect of my wild and precious life was over.
Thankfully, over the last nearly three years, I have discovered that even as an adult I get to continue being ‘wild’ and exploring the world around me. I experience awe and wonder in seeing the look on my sons’ faces while I tell stories. I live silliness while bringing music into daily experiences of young families in Trenton. This summer I will fly to Peru with my husband…for the weekend.
I fumble, I am quick to doubt myself and I don’t know the meaning of life. But I’m doing this thing called life anyway.
This year I will turn 33, and I will own it. I am pretty sure I’ll have all the answers by 34…
I plan to make my life the best one it can be—for myself, my family and my community—and to be happy with the choices I’ve made. I definitely don’t just plan, but live my life to enjoy the day-to-day and remind myself that life is the day-to-day. I try to appreciate it rather than always thinking that there has to be some greater plan and some place I’m trying to get to.
I feel fortunate in that I’ve been able to accomplish many of my goals. I’ve started a family and hopefully raised children that are well-adjusted, aspiring, and independent. Along the way I’ve lived overseas and traveled to several countries to learn about different cultures. And I’ve engaged in many church activities, most recently with Right Relations Committee and Youth Group.
As I think about my plan going forward, I find myself revisiting choices I’ve made and how I want to plan for the next several years. This is in part due to my daughter Ellen preparing for college, and Marianne and I finding ourselves with more time… wait, wait Nominating Committee… not that much more time!
According to averages, a person will live to be about 79 years old in the US. That means I’m about 60% of the way through my plan right now.
My remaining plan starts with today…
For today, I just plan to drink more coffee…hopefully in about 30 minutes from now.
For the year, I plan to get more involved with service work, particularly with Youth Group; to find a way to support my daughter Ellen as she moves away to college; and to drink one of the special bottles of wine that I received from a French colleague rather than saving it.
For the decade, I plan to swim the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim again, but this time with my son Charlie; to map out how I wish to finish my professional career; and to decide how Marianne and I wish to retire.
If I summarize this, I’d say my plan is to: Live. Explore. Love. Enjoy.
Maybe this is better said by Hans Christian Anderson, “Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
I love Mary Oliver. Every poem I have read, I have loved. At 59, I am also very much at a crossroad. How prescient, almost uncanny that Reverend Kim would ask me to reflect on my decade.
What will I do with the rest of this wild and precious life? It is realistic to say that more than half of it is over, though I do hope that some form of spiritual awareness allows me to know what the world will be like in 2077. Much improved and more accepting, I hope.
Thoughts of downsizing and ridding of clutter occupy my mind. Leaving work of thirty years that has brought challenge, accomplishment and great satisfaction as well as frustration also fills my thoughts. I want to give greater voice to my beliefs and truths and the needs of community than I am able to do in public service. Change is good and I look forward to embracing change. I am not done working and hope to re-direct my skills and passions to making the world a better place. I want to write and create and take photos. And continue learning in life’s laboratory.
I also want to spend time with friends, both old and new. The struggles of family have been heavy these last few years and that will likely continue. So, what I hope for is more patience and the ability to do what needs to be done without exhausting myself and without losing the life that is precious to me. I hope to find love, be silly, sing, read poetry and hear the beautiful music all around us.
This is what we all hope to do, I believe: to live purposefully, to be kind and compassionate, to be of service, to care and be cared about.
So just who am I at 65? I am a UU, I am a grandfather; I am a husband, I am a father; I am a property owner, retiree, and a former spouse. I am, today, a LOT of things “former” I was a social worker; and a Human Resources Veep. I worked in Paris, London and Salzburg. I was a Catholic; I was a student of psychology, social work and criminal justice. I started working at 16 and retired at 56; 40 years all told…Men my age can’t resist defining ourselves by the successes and even failures of the past. Mary Oliver’s exhortation to “be idle and blessed and stroll through the fields” never quite made sense to me, I was too busy all the time.
And today? Why lies ahead for my wild? Life?
Well my husband of 20 years, Mike is central to the continuing story of “me” as are my daughter, her husband and my grandsons, 7 & 8. They ride this journey at my side, much of my life surrounded by them. I mean after all, how did I choose to celebrate my 65th? We all went to Disney World!
And perhaps the most exciting part of the journey began just 15 days ago. That’s when Mike and I closed on our new co-op on East 72nd Street in NYC; fulfilling a life-long dream of having a pied-a-terre in my very own city of dreams.
The second part of the journey will begin this coming March, when Mike retires and we celebrate by seeing Rome. After that? I’ll peacefully continue on as long as I have the health, time, energy, and sanity for…
Of course, continuing my various activities right here at the UUCWC, as well as my passion for movies, photography, music, cooking, museum hopping and love for the four seasons. And what would please me the most? Live along enough for my grandsons to marry and be a great-grandfather.
Now THAT would be the wildest dream of all.
I don’t know when Mary Oliver wrote The Summer Day, but I do know that it was published in 1992 when Oliver was 57. I think that had she written the line “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” when she was in her mid- 70’s, as I am now, she might have written “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with what’s LEFT OF your one wild and precious life?”
This year will be a transitional year for me in many ways. I am hoping for greater mobility after a knee replacement, I am now 9/10ths retired from my Executive Coaching work. In 2017 I will be clearing out a lot of the gathered “stuff” of my life and moving with Tony into a small apartment, and I’ll be doing a lot of thinking about what has been and what is still to come in my “one wild and precious life”.
For the last 7 years I have chosen a word or phrase to strive for in the New Year: words and phrases like “Slower”, “Gratitude”, and “Less is More”. This year’s word is “Be”.
I plan to be a human BEING, rather than a human DOING! I want to read more novels, take more walks, meet and know more interesting people, and enjoy with Tony morning coffee and conversation to start each day.
I want to be able to say, again like Mary Oliver…
“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…”
And I plan to be open to all the surprises that the 7th decade has to offer.
“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?”
I know that the north star I used as a young man will not be the north star I will use today…as an 82 year old elder.
William James who is quoted as having said:
“I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual.”
I have always strived for great things and big things. I have always strived to be successful while working in great institutions. Those days are over…….gratefully. Now is another time. As Oliver says in her wonderful poem, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall own in the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,”
I’ve never been old before so I have no template from experience to help guide me.
I would be misleading if I said I have a plan for how to live in what is left of this wild and wonderful life. I still am pulled to the project…..the task……the challenge. But now there is a restraining voice too.
Take the road that is filled with simple pleasures and realize that you have nothing to prove to anyone.
I have no grand all encompassing plan going forward. I have some principles that are important to me and which have always guided me and I’m not about to abandon them now. These are the words that hang over my empty desk:
Light over dark
Smile over frown
Optimism over pessimism
Risk over complacency
Action over passivity
Generosity over self-indulgence
Humility over arrogance
Skepticism over cynicism
Happiness over sadness
It seems to me that we all live many lives, dependent on our circumstances, decisions, money, energy and ambition. Mine has been no different. One of the themes that runs through my life has been the need to help others. My careers include nursing, physical therapy, primarily with Polio and Cerebral Palsied children, public school counseling and administration, Reiki, AIDS counseling, hospital volunteer.
As for “My one wild and precious life” from ninety forward, I plan to keep on doing the same things. The differences are in the venues. With few exceptions, I still counsel but now with the octogenarians and nonagenarians who ask for help interpreting doctors’ orders. My physical therapy education informs me and friends on how to stay active. My doctor says “age is just a number” and I believe him.
I love the spiritual, intellectual challenges of our church, that continues, it never ends or falters.
The other side of the brain teased me into photography, art. And writing poetry.
My digital camera is far superior to my old 35 millimeter and provides good shots of the three squirrels I feed, all named Walter. My writing continues. I just finished a fifty page memoir of my five high school friends, and this year I will review my two former books of poetry, for those I consider the best, for publication.
I like to travel and bought my top bucket list entry, the 2011 Prius that year.
My travel plans suffers the most at this age, buy I just got my five year picture ID and drivers license renewed, so who knows…
Five years ago two friends gave me a towel I keep on a venetian blind:
“Life’s journey is not to arrive safely at the grave in a well preserved body,
But rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting,
“Holy cow…what a ride!”
I am grateful to everyone and for the Spirit who is alive in the Universe for making this ride so pleasurable. Some time ago I wrote: What is asked of me is not known. What can be given is not enough.