"What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" asked the American poet Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day. Taken out of context, this line now verges on cliche: it's become an inspirational slogan circulated on social media and slapped across photos of sunsets and mountains. I've had earnest yoga teachers ask this question to a class of people whose only plan at that immediate moment is not to fall over during tree pose.
Oliver’s poem is about the inevitability of loss, but it is also about resolve and perseverance, which is why, despite its title, the poem offers us something to think about now, at the turn of the new year. The poem’s final question punches through the noise of New Year’s celebrations and the sound of the world exhaling with relief at finally bidding farewell to 2017: it asks us to think about what matters.
My year did not launch in a particularly wild or precious fashion, however, because I was in Manhattan and completely paralysed by the city’s frigid temperatures. I ushered in 2018 while wrapped in fuzzy blankets and sitting on my couch watching old movies. I’m not sure that’s what Oliver intended, but that’s what Arctic breezes will do to someone homesick for Abu Dhabi’s gentler air.
Despite spending the night wrapped in a blanket cocoon, I have made no new year’s resolutions about ending my couch potato ways. I am resolutely anti-new year’s resolutions, and I think Oliver’s poem helps me explain why. Sure, it might seem important that your waistband be less snug and your running shoes see more use; maybe you should be more patient with your children or your partner (I speak here entirely hypothetically, of course; I have not gained a kilo over the holidays and never once raised my voice to my children). But if we think about the arc of our one precious life, is the goal of a trimmer tummy really the best we can do?
Before I went to New York for the holiday, I went to Kite Beach on Saadiyat Island for the afternoon to watch the kite-surfers skim like huge dragonflies over the water. I’d love to try kite-surfing some day, except I’m pretty sure my arms would pop right out of their sockets as soon as I tried to lift the kite out of the water. Instead I watched from the shallows and waded among the rocks. I had to navigate sludgy piles of trash as I walked – bobbling water bottles, empty packets of crisps, crumbled chunks of Styrofoam – all the detritus of campsites, I guess, and bearing witness to an unintentional irony: that the same people who want to get out to enjoy nature are polluting it at the same time.
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“I know how to pay attention,” Oliver wrote, which she demonstrated with an incredibly detailed description of a single grasshopper eating a piece of sugar. But that tight focus opens up a question about loss: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Would it be overstretching matters to wonder whether Abu Dhabi’s amazing waterscape will die – and too soon – if we don’t pay more attention to how we treat it? We can make all sorts of resolutions about going green and trot off to the market with our reusable shopping bags, but if we don’t resolve to pick up the trash when we go to the beach or go camping, what’s really the point?
I can’t make the kite-surfers and campers and jet-skiers and tourists pick up after themselves. Most of the time, I can’t even get my kids to pick up their socks. What I can do, though, is pay attention. I can resolve to take Oliver’s question as more than just a T-shirt slogan.
Maybe you don’t want to pick up rubbish; that’s fine. Maybe you’d rather work with children learning to read, or with the Special Olympics – what matters is that in our own small ways, with the one precious life we have at our disposal, we find something to offer the world. What will matter to you in 2018 and what are you going to do about it?