Do you have any idea how many lives you've impacted, by virtue of going about your life in a way that's authentic to you?
The poet Mary Oliver passed away a couple weeks ago, having no idea how much her work (which she mostly created in solitude over the course of many prolific decades), impacted me.
Her poem "The Summer Day" essentially provided the North Star for my coaching business, back before I had a coaching business.
The final lines of the poem have been repeated to death, and are easy to take out of context:
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do /
With your one wild and precious life?"
Read in isolation, the lines can appear challenging; even a bit judgmental.
Like: Well, what's YOUR big idea for your life?
But in the context of the entire poem, it takes on a different flavor entirely.
Reading it for the first time, I felt it was suggesting the exact opposite of judgment, whether given or received.
To me, it affirmed our ability to live in total freedom from the weight that we typically attach to other people's judgments.
It struck a chord with me; and (although one only sees this in hindsight), it was the same chord that brought me to storytelling in the first place.
You see, I arrived at story-as-calling somewhat by necessity.
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to do things that weren't easy for other people to immediately understand or relate to.
And, especially when you're young and don't yet have an empire to point to, there's no shortage of people who want to tell you in advance what's worth doing, and what's NOT.
Your parents and relatives; friends and colleagues and peers; everyone is ready to tell you what the right path looks like.
But for whatever reason, I was rarely able to accept their good-natured assertions and recommendations as fact -- a form of communication I can now recognize as "moralizing."
Even as I smiled and nodded, some deep, stubborn part of me secretly thought: "That's your interpretation."
Inwardly, I vowed to go out and learn directly from the world, so that I could develop my own interpretations.
When I finally escaped the glass tower of academia and got to prioritize this, I would periodically return to touch base with people and end up sharing the experiences I'd had and the learnings I'd discovered.
And invariably, I'd watch their faces transform from polite indulgence to something much more engaged, curious, and alert.
I hadn't yet made the connection that I was telling stories, and I hadn't yet consciously linked the telling of stories (versus skipping straight the the moral) to the opening of minds, hearts, and support of unconventional choices.
But when I read Mary Oliver's poem -- which peered guilelessly up at me from a hardcover book that my sister-in-law gave me for Christmas a mere 2 months after I'd decided to build a business -- I immediately recognized what she was offering.
I recognized how she could spend all day "falling down in the grass" and not feel a shred of shame or doubt about the value of her choices.
And I recognized the implicit availability of that freedom, to anyone who's willing to turn around and share their discoveries -- of beauty, of magic, of worth -- with others, through words.
Mary Oliver spent her life modeling this kind of freedom, and gently inviting others to claim it for themselves through her work.
Her influence found a channel in me, and has gone on to touch and catalyze hundreds of other people through MY work.
And she died without knowing about any of it.
Is it possible, that YOU could be as influential, as cherished, in the lives of others -- without ever really knowing for sure?
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.