What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?

‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’

I love that quote which comes at the end of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day (you can find the whole poem here).

Mary Oliver was not the first spiritual poet I encountered. But my first memory of her poetry and this line in particular goes back to my time at Loyola Hall in 2003. I’m sure we were given a ‘Loyola Hall Prayer Sheet’ which contained this quote during the first few days I was there (before I had even thought that I might like a job there!)

It is interesting to read the same words in a different phase of life. Those same words have a different flavour now at 40 than did when I first encountered them at 27. My wild and precious life was all potential at 27, where at 40 tiny crystals have started to form.

(As a synthetic chemist I have come to develop tremendous respect for the patience and art that is involved in growing a beautiful, single crystal. Analytically the ‘single’ part is very important! It takes a great deal of trial and error and some luck along the way.)

It is fascinating to recognise that what is ‘wild’ and what is ‘precious’ are not quite the same now as they were thirteen years ago.

Perhaps what is most intriguing as I re-enter my own life is the discovery that I am no longer the whipper-snapper trying to establish myself. No one questions my right to have a say.

‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’

It’s no longer about pure potential – it is about my reach from the platform I have built for myself with the support of those who have believed in me.


I will not help

I’m sure quite how many times I have heard some variation which suggests that No! is a complete sentence. I don’t have to explain why I won’t do something. I can simply say – No.

It occurred to me today that the challenge of saying no lies in a distinction I have never quite seen until now. When I am saying No in the implied by ‘No is a complete sentence’, I am really saying ‘No, I won’t help you’. Not ‘No, I can’t help you’.

To admit that I can’t help someone is easy. I am unable to offer the assistance you request but let me point you in a direction which may be helpful.

To admit that I won’t help is something different.

In most cases the person is asking something which to them seems not unreasonable. To be fair they may not actually help in the same way in the same circumstances but we all play those double standards. In most cases the requests are usually about influence, power or money.

The cost of my effort is, therefore, often hidden but I feel it in my bones. Sometimes the ‘feeling in my bones’ is simply my own insecurity. Sometimes it is a real cost that the other doesn’t recognise.

Either way actively saying no is important. If it is the former I get to reflect on what I may need to work on. If the latter, no harm is done to me and I have honoured what I feel is important in my life. Significantly, the person who has made the request knows where they stand.

When the answer is ‘No I will not’, it can feel easier to simply procrastinate and fail to answer. But to do so does a disservice to everyone involved.

Next time someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do ask yourself is it because you cannot do it, or because you will not do it. If you have no intention of doing what is asked of you, stand up and say no.

Motivated by small rewards

I am blessed with a fairly good degree of natural fitness. It doesn’t mean that I can run a marathon tomorrow but I can afford to be reasonably sporadic in my exercise routine. Sadly this means that I tend to under-exercise.

It has helped over the last few years that my medical aid plan has a reward system for exercise. You are awarded points for going to the gym or exercising over certain levels of exertion. Slowly over the year you can move from Bronze to Silver and on to Gold. Each milestone carries increased discounts on certain items. But the goals are relatively easy to achieve – meaning I can still get away with relatively little exercise.

A few months ago I was given a fitbit. It has been far more helpful in getting me off the couch than I expected. Seeing the daily accumulation of steps and stairs climbed and the bonus of the virtual badges you receive at various milestones is genuinely motivating for me.

But this year my medical aid has gone another step – there are weekly (small) rewards for achieving certain exercise goals. It is brilliant. And it works. I want to exercise more because I want to achieve the goal that has been set for me. It is trivial, and I know it is ridiculous. But it works for me.

I’m not quite sure what deeper meaning to draw from this – for today I am simply grateful that I have the motivation to exercise a little more.

Unexpected familiarity

I returned to Cape Town yesterday after six months in the USA. In an attempt to lessen the affect of jet lag I went for a walk in the afternoon. It was a fairly typical summer’s day in Cape Town. Warm with a fairly significant warm wind. Thankfully it wasn’t overly hot.

What struck me as I walked along was the familiarity of the space. It is a walk along a canal near where I live. But it wasn’t just the visual familiarity but the but the familiarity of the quality of the air that struck me. The gentle absence of humidity. The warmth of the sun. The strength of the wind. The warmth of the wind.

I have often said that one of the things I miss about living on the highveld is the innate familiarity from childhood. The glorious tension in the air before an afternoon thunderstorm in the summer. The smell of the rain on the soil and on the hot tarmac.

And yet, over the years this place has gently got under my skin. I can’t say that it feels like the place that I am ‘from’. But it is far more a part of me now that I had realised.

Then I began to count the years – I have lived in Cape Town for 13 years. Just a few months shy of a third of my life! It is hardly surprising that it is now familiar. There is something comforting about that.

And they pay you to do this?

‘And they pay you to do this?’

My big brother (both older and significantly taller than I) asked this question of me a few months ago. He preempted it by using the voice of my late Uncle Ian – an eminently practical, no nonsense kind of man – a partner in a major accounting firm in New York.

How is it that they pay you to go and work somewhere else for six months? Why would the university do that?

Universities are definitely clamping down on giving ‘research leave’ aka a ‘sabbatical’. It isn’t simply down time, it is time to regenerate; time to learn new skills; time to make new connections.

As I face my journey back home in a few days, my sabbatical has been fruitful professionally. I have made good relationships; I have definitely learnt some new skills; and I have managed to publish a few papers.

But it has also been a time that has been good personally. Removing myself from the routine of my life has given me time to think about what is important to me; what do I want to pursue and what will I let go. It has allowed things to flourish back home in my absence.

More than any of that, it has been a time of interior rearrangement. Allowing my being to settle into a new normal that feels somehow ‘better’.

I’m looking forward to getting back to my life. But I will be forever grateful for this pause. It could not have come at a better time for me.