Idle and blessed

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

These last two lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular poems, The Summer Day are often quoted as a reminder to pay attention to the small, ordinary astonishments of everyday life.

But this summer, stumbling to find respite from the crush of emails, Facebook and the to-do list, I find myself caught by another phrase in the same poem: “how to be idle and blessed…” Kim Rosen highlights this phrase in her book Saved by a Poem, “…in my own life there was no possibility of these two words living anywhere near each other.”

The same holds true for me. I suspect, for myself and many others, this phrase triggers the taboo of laziness, echoing strictures from the past such as “Idle hands are the devil’s work” which retain a hold on our psyches, and which are reinforced by the unrealistic value we place on action and productivity.

So I can be active and blessed. Or idle and guilty. But idle and blessed? Nope.

At least not until now. As I grow older, my energy for doing, for pushing myself to ‘get it done’ has seriously waned. Instead, there’s an insistent inner demand for a slower pace. Taking an hour in the morning to read. Watching the finches fight at the bird feeder. Letting e-mails pile up. My hard-wired active self calls this slower pace ‘laziness.’ Guilt oils my joints, urging me to get moving. Otherwise, I’m stealing time away from all those Very Important Things That Must Be Done. I realize my parents’ rule, “no play until work is done” still hangs over me. And heaven forbid lazying about if someone else is working: then the guilt machine works overtime! When I mention this to my husband John, he simply laughs. My problem, not his.

A friend wondered if the disappearance of the Sabbath contributes to this problem. The Sabbath commanded us to take a day of rest; it enforced “idle blessedness” (although not truly idle, what with church-going, scripture reading and prayer). Now all the days run into one another and we no longer have that external demarcation of idle time.

What is the inner shift needed to accommodate the union of ‘idle and blessed’? My body doesn’t lie. When my days and weeks are crammed full of doing, I feel tension build in my back and my neck; my mood turns sour and grumpy. When I give myself the gift of idleness, I breathe easier and smile more often. Yes, I still feel guilty. But that might be a small price to pay for the sweet luxury of strolling through the world, immersed in the moment. When I’m idling, I’m open to life, to receiving from life. Gratitude overflows. Isn’t that blessed?

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?

~ Mary Oliver



  1. janice falls

    July 1, 2017

    oh Mary Lou, what a different world this would be if we could receive the blessing of just being without the judgment of idleness as something to be condemned. How like a poem to show us the way – indeed everything dies at last and too soon. Idle and blessed – an inspiring motto for my summer time. thanks for the reminder.

  2. Wendy Sarno

    July 1, 2017

    Mary Lou, again you nail the best question a summer’s day can ask us: “What is the inner shift needed to accommodate the union of ‘idle and blessed’? ” I think of Lynn Ungar’s poem Camas Lilies in which she ponders the “lilies of the field” and asks:
    “And you—what of your rushed
    and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
    papers, plans, appointments, everything—
    leaving only a note: “Gone
    to the fields to be lovely. Be back
    when I’m through with blooming.””

    It may take a bit of practice, like prayer and meditation, to make the spaciousness necessary to know ourselves blessed when simply being in our one wild, and precious life.

  3. Sherry Galey

    July 15, 2017

    Such a wonderful post, which certainly resonates with me. I too am aware of the guilt that keeps me company when I am “idle” and takes away the fun of slow-paced, self-determined action — or inaction. Sometimes I manage to banish it for a while…other times not. I had to laugh at your line about the guilt machine working overtime when someone else near me is working — I do know that one oh so well. I too much prefer my mood when things are flowing at a natural and comfortable pace. But, all that being said, I am getting better at all this as I get older. Thanks for the encouragement, ML!

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