There are people here on Beaver Island who travel regularly – even daily – to places where land meets the big water of Lake Michigan. They go to experience the glorious display as the sun rises in the morning, or sets in the evening. Every day unique; every day spectacular. It’s not always easy. Especially at this time of year, when our days are longest, it requires quite a commitment!
I admire those people. Like my friend, Donna, who has set an alarm in order to move from her cozy bed out, with a blanket, to her lawn chair in the middle of the night in order to see the northern lights, these folks are determined to relish every single day. They make me want to recite Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, that ends with the question “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I admire those people. Alas, I am not one of them. I see the sun hours after it has lifted over the horizon, when it finally shows itself above the treetops. In the evening, it dips behind those same trees long before its illustrious exit on the shoreline. I live in the center of the island, far from water in every direction. I’m busy. I’m tired. Gasoline is expensive. And though my excuses ring hollow even to my own ears, the fact remains that I rarely get to the shore for sunrise or sunset.
I do pay attention, though. As I walk the dogs, morning and evening, I notice the way the light filters through the trees, leaving patterns on the gravel road. I note the movement of the earth through the year in the woods on either side of my path. Snow melt gives way to spring blossoms, to yellow grasses, to ripe berries, to russet fall colors, to gray, to snow. Birdsong, the buzz of insects, and the startling rustle of a surprised partridge. The bright smell of wild leeks gives way to the heady perfume of milkweed flowers. There is something new every single day.
The other day, as I poured my first cup, I was aware of a burnt-coffee smell. It was probably caused by a stray coffee ground on the burner, but it caused me to dip my nose to the freshly prepared cup, and take a deep sniff. Aaah! There was the deep, rich scent of roasted beans, mingled with the smell of warm cream. Right there along with it came my mother, in the form of an old memory.
Mom brewed her coffee in a percolator on the stove top. it was a strong, familiar smell in our kitchen. When it was ready, she’d pour a half-cup, then add lots of milk and sugar. As a small child, I would dip my face close to the cup in order to smell my mother’s coffee, milky and syrupy sweet. She’d sometimes allow a small child to take the first sip from her full-to-the-rim cup. Until I paused to smell my own cup of coffee, that memory had escaped me.
Likewise, my snowball bush brings gifts that span time. I remember the snowball bush that grew between house and driveway in my grandparent’s yard. It’s branches tipped down to the ground all around, and we – tiny children – crawled inside. The earth was soft and powdery in that dome-shaped space. It was mostly shade, but the sun came through in some places. Overhead, ball shaped blossoms bobbled as we played.
Fifty years later, having heard me tell about my grandparent’s snowball bush, my friend Wendy bought one for me. It was an unexpected surprise, and that has added to the sweetness of having it. Now, ten years later, that is the same snowball bush that blooms right now in my front flower bed. Its bouncy white blossoms make me smile every time I pass by.
So, I advocate for the ordinary. The simple, everyday experience. We can’t all get to the shoreline to experience sunrise and sunset. We can’t all get to the mountaintop. If we pay attention, though, as we move daily through our days, we’ll see that it’s all pretty wonderful. Watch. Listen. Smell the coffee.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. 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?