The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made. It is the one we must be choosing and making. Wendell Berry
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable. Mary Oliver
It was quite a house, this house high up on the hill overlooking the Palouse Valley in Moscow County. And it was ours to enjoy for this week in late August. The owners, a couple in their sixties, built it as a retirement home, a rustic yet ultra-modern expanse of windows and beams and mindful layout with the flavor of an outbuilding from the wife’s western-farm childhood. Our son and daughter-in-law bought the house next door in mid-May, the cabin-home on the low ground, nestled in a wooded lot next to the wilderness reserve. And these neighbors have taken our kids under their wings, and have become fast friends. And during the week of newborn baby, this couple, who were off on their own adventure, offered us this respite, a place to regroup and recharge and gaze out over this rolling prairie land of wheat fields and lentil fields and wild grasses, a place to adjust our vision to the Big Picture, to a clarity that sometimes is lost when you find yourself in the thick of the forest.
And it became my practice each day that late summer week to drive up the long steep incline, park the car, and enter this welcoming haven. It was a hot dry August in Idaho, and the potted outdoor vegetables, the herbs and the flowers were hungry for attention, and they became my excuse for spending time at the house high up on the hill. But it was something else that called me inward. This house was not only award-winning creative and environmentally friendly; it was soulful. Family art adorned the walls and hand-stitched quilts lay on couches as pillows and warmed the cool places. Books — shelves and shelves of books — tucked themselves into clever nooks, and relics from as far away as Africa and as close as the Palouse found their perfect places among all these other treasures. I copied down poems that had been stuck on the fridge, poems by Jane Hirshfield, Wendell Berry, by my very favorite poets — and then there was the quote, the quote by Mary Oliver that I have repeated again and again to myself over the years. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
It was a pang I felt as i settled into this couple’s indoor space, as I gazed out, at the same time, over the wide expanse of outdoor wildness. It wasn’t envy exactly that I was feeling. Or at least it wasn’t envy for this particular house, for this particular life that the couple have created for themselves. I wasn’t raised on the northwest prairie of Idaho and Washington, and this house, organic and integrity-filled for a couple who calls this place home, as wonderful as it was, isn’t the dwelling that i would create. But I think there was something inside me that perhaps could be called envy. I felt this couple’s connection with the space they occupied, felt this couple’s connection with the lives they were creating. And this awareness brought me clarity. Somehow, sometime in the bustling busyness of a full and fulfilling life, with so many dear-to-me-moving-parts, I had forgotten my keen alignment to Source. I had forgotten my keen connection to Mary Oliver’s words, my keen courage to really live by them, moment to moment, from the inside out, really live the longings and desires of my one wild and precious life.
Now that I’m truly admitting to envy, I can say that it has been rearing its dragon-like head and shooting its wake-up flames in my direction for some time now. It has tried its hardest to be my-gather-your-courage-and-move-forward friend; it has tried to get my attention. And now I’m saying it — I’ve been envious, envious of yoga students who are re-inventing their lives with expansive wide-sky possibilities after retirement, envious that i’m witnessing people just taking off, untethered, and starting something new, envious of a spaciousness in the air that i haven’t felt in my own life. And the tricky thing, the thing that has kept me tethered, is that I have created an amazing life. And for a long time, it has been a fit, a great fit, and I’m not sure when it has gotten too full, when i stopped listening so intently to the inside, to when I stopped to see what parts still are working and what parts aren’t anymore. And how do you untether yourself from the things that bring you joy? How do you loosen your grip so you can see the view from high up on the hill?
A dear friend, a friend who is unflinchingly honest with me and I with her, brought Cam and I dinner last week. And we laughed, sort of a painful laugh of recognition, as she said to me, “Well, maybe you could have just called for a sabbatical this fall.” And honestly, as appealing as a sabbatical would have felt if I had allowed myself to contemplate it — the time to breathe deeply, to take in the view from the hill — it would have scared the shit out of me. My tethers were tied so deep in obligation and competency and the deep deep love for a creative sanctuary that is truly my joy child — to loosen my grip felt too tangled, felt like too much.
So from the vista high up on the hill, and the wooded-lot view from my own home back in Upper Michigan — which I’m now realizing is also a soulful place, filled with treasures from as near as Lake Superior and as far away as the whole world, a place with art created by dear friends and family members, a place with altars of mindful prayer — I want to be honest. I want to have courage and backbone and Sisu. I want to say it and I want to live it like it is. I want to talk about the vibration beneath this medical sabbatical that I’m living this autumn. I want to focus on what it is really about. And so, it is Mary Oliver and her question that I return to, that I hold up to my Source with a listening heart. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life, Helen?” And the answers, they are not clear yet. But there are glimmerings. I want to loosen my grip. I want to feel expansive. I want to pay attention to what feels good and right from the inside, moment to moment. I want for this to be my steady practice. I want for new adventures to open up, new possibilities, new seemingly unimaginable feel-great opportunities. i want to work on my book projects, to claim myself as writer. I want to connect more fully, more vitally to the blood-racing life force that is always always ready to course freely though our veins.