what do you plan to do? a Birthday

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?”
-from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver-
I was there. I was there on one of Seattle’s most glorious days. The sun dawned alarmingly warm and persistent for the first weekend in February, and I shaded my brow with my hand, waiting for the bus to arrive which would take me from downtown Seattle to Fremont. I blinked away the rays again and again, but the light still soaked my lashes in brightness.

old and new on Seattle’s Pike Street

And as in Portland, I noticed a landscape of opposites in the center of the Emerald City. The old mingled with the new, the blue windows and silver lining of the US Bank Center building, its tiers lined with stars, rose in modern glory behind crumbling brick buildings in Belltown. The brick of these older buildings was marked with various white painted labels declaring their purpose or their owner. Clean met grimy on the downtown streets, where bedraggled transients clustered in groups to drink Smirnoff Ice, reminiscent of the similar stark contrast just up the hill where Seattle U meets Jefferson Street. I was reminded of the Mission in San Francisco, the smell of urine and garbage always lingering in the air and pigeons picking at food discarded on concrete. Just as I was traveling through Seattle’s downtown to reach Fremont, I had to hike through the Mission to reach the clean air of Bernal Hill and its wind-whipped summit. I remained quiet, contemplatively observing these snapshots of Seattle, taking them in as still-life’s of urban beauty. And the sun of the present mingled with the dreary, wet, cold rain of the near past’s typical winter day, a memory streaming through to now, blurred through on the edge of time.

But there was no reason for rain on this day. I was in a mood of pure celebration, and even a drizzly day couldn’t have dampened my spirits, only my socks. This blindingly, cheerfully, sunny day happened to be the first few hours of my twenty-fourth year and I was in the midst of my pilgrimage of sorts to Seattle, seeking out the good friends and beautiful views that I had known as every-day for four years from 2006-2010. I had called this place my “city love,” reveling in the expansive city bisected by magnificent bodies of water, persistently good coffee, and a constant view of mountains. Though I am now constantly wondering which city’s traits place it at the top of my list, Seattle will always hold a nostalgic place in my memory as the place where I became an adult. And it is conveniently now only a 3 hour drive to the North of my beloved Portland, easily accessible for weekend urban adventures.

Mary Oliver and her canine inspiration. Credit for photo post: http://www.poetryfoundation.org

The reason why I waited for the bus to Fremont in such high spirits, soaked with sun, is that I had had the privilege to begin my birthday by sharing a room with Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver. Mary’s poems have  filled my life with such billowing joy, speaking to the beauty we can all seek to find in our everyday lives. During Mary’s talk at Seattle U’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, she characterized her writing life as spending 5-6 hours per day wandering through the woods and just simply paying attention. She would stash pencils in the notches of trees, strategically placed for when she was hit with inspiration and needed to scribble, capturing her creative impulse on paper. I have enjoyed reading Mary’s poems for many years now and credit her as an inspiration for the way I seek to write. But hearing her speak, a small woman with a plain, wavy bob, barely able to reach the microphone, I was overwhelmed by her humility. Such a small woman, getting up there in years, able to write with such wisdom. And her approach: simply vigilance. Her advice in the poem above is to simply immerse oneself into the world, to fall down into the grass, and to stroll through the fields. In other words, enjoy life in a slow, leisurely manner. Yes, dedication and purpose are very important; Mary also discussed the need to establish a practice of discipline in one’s creative life. But at the center of living a life, there are only three instructions: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. (See Mary’s poem “Sometimes.”)

Green Lake, Seattle. Photo Credit: sweetspothowtobumpelbowswiththeelite.wordpress.com

So I boarded the 26 bus. And I sat among strangers in a quiet, cool seat. Passing Belltown, Denny Park, Dexter Avenue, the Fremont Bridge, places of my past that were now my present. And I paid attention. I was grateful for the people I had the honor of sharing a day with. I was astonished. I reveled in my birthday, arriving in Fremont at the corner by the Greek restaurant. I met Sam and we descended into the acoustic-mecca that is Dusty Strings, where he bought a bouzouki to add to his collection of stringed, wooden instruments (a long-contemplated purchase) and I bought an egg shaker. And then I was delighted by my squash-corn-garlic-snap pea pesto sandwich on wholegrain, flax-seed bread at Homegrown while Sam noshed on ham and Beecher’s cheese. Well fed, we hiked up and over the hill to Green Lake, where we wiled away the afternoon on the grass beneath a tree, making music and reveling in the oddity that is serendipitous meetings with people of our past. And we ended our day in the company of dear friends at Delancey, a delightful Northwest-style pizza restaurant tucked into the neighborhoods of Ballard, and owned by Molly and Brandon, Molly being the author of one of my favorite blogs, Orangette. We drank ginger beer with whiskey and I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Days like this happen only once in awhile, but increasingly so in 2012, where most days so far have felt right, falling into place. On these days, there is a simplicity of thought, a loose schedule to allow for leisurely bus rides across town and music-making in a park, surrounded by hundreds of strangers who have convened because of miraculous weather. Though Seattle was a town I was just visiting for a weekend, I was constantly hit by the realization that this was, indeed, a place I had known intimately for four years. That I did know this place, that familiarity was real. It is a bizarre feeling. As I have written about previously, there is something special about investing a long period of time in a place, a year or more, and leaving it with a blessing. But more often than not, we are able to come back and learn to love it again, to remember its streets and its transit lines and its vistas. To recall moments when you have walked those sidewalks and drank a latte at that coffee shop. As my years have progressed, I have been able to come back and visit both Seattle and San Francisco as if I were a current resident, as I did this weekend, traversing the Northwest city of diverse geography and meandering, Dead-End, non-gridded streets, reflecting an imposition of water and elevation on land.

And the same has been true of my relationships with people over the years: meandering, recalling, remembering, returning. I have become removed enough from both high school and college that now people from my past have cycled in and out, intermingling with each other to a point that sometimes I have a hard time remembering where I first met the person. There is one high school friend who I reconnected with in San Francisco while I was living there, forming a great friendship over glasses of red wine that has carried over now to the Rose City, as we have both moved back. There is another friend who I knew vaguely as a child taking piano lessons but who I ultimately met at my high school’s senior prom. We reconnected briefly over the years in Seattle and Portland over cups of tea and Nickel Creek tracks until we eventually connected for good over Japanese food and a discussion of my trip to Ireland in 2010. And then there was another friend who I barely knew in high school, who by the luck of the draw got placed in the same house in Jesuit Volunteer Corps with a friend from Seattle University. They became fast friends there and now we are all able to enjoy each other’s company over bikes and brews in Portland! It really is a small world, even smaller as a Portland resident, and sometimes my head hurts, recalling all the connections I have made in my life, the relationships I have invested in over the years, complex and evocative. They have now all formed a large, interconnecting web, as meandering and deep as Seattle’s geography.

And so I begin my twenty-fourth year in reflection and resolution, as I did to mark the dawning of 2012. I lived my first weekend with panache, surrounded by most of the people and things that I appreciate the most. But there are many days ahead. Days of wonder and days of challenge. Days of sun and (surely) days of rain. Days of independence and days of dependence. Days of joy and days of pain. Days of certainty and days filled with questions. So tell me, Katie, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Pike Place Market, January 2007


5 thoughts on “what do you plan to do? a Birthday

  1. Oh, I would die to see Mary Oliver speak! I have had a deep love for her poetry for a few years now, and there have been moments when I pick up one of her books and I love every single word she ever put on the page. I have a quote from her on my wall that reads:

    “From my mouth to God’s ear, I swear it; I want only to be a song./To wander around in the fields like a little reed bird./ To be a song.”

    I think this is the best description I’ve ever read about how I want to live and her poems are so full of that. I often recite to myself the beginning of her poem “Wild Geese” when I’m feeling down.

    That photo you put above with her and her dog is just how I would imagine her, and your description of her is just how I would like her to be.

    I’m always delighted to find other Mary Oliver lovers! Thanks so much for visiting my blog! beautiful post!

    • Nicole,
      I agree! Mary has such a beautiful way of living and writing. I am always amazed that she is able to put words together in such a simple and profound way. You are right, every word that she puts on the page seems so intentional and comes out so beautifully. Which poem is that quote from? It is so perfect!

      I was equally delighted to find your blog and will be following your work there. Your recent series on “a dozen thoughts on living” is wonderful. It’s often great to realize how much power you can put into only a few words 🙂

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