Tell me, what is it you plan to do?


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

I spent last Thursday morning revisiting the holy sites of my childhood and adolescence. I spent my high school years in the coastal suburbs south of Boston, quaint New England villages warring with the creep of McMansion construction. My favourite childhood toy store, now a luxury real estate agency. My favourite childhood stop for penny candies, now another luxury real estate agency. People are so eager to spend money to live somewhere so charming that they will drive out the charm to make sure their realtor has a convenient office location. At thirty-two, I have already become the grumpy old man, waxing nostalgic for the good old days of 1995. Ageing, at all ages, is the act of confronting inevitable change. Sometimes growth, sometimes deterioration, but our bodies and our surroundings are defiantly refusing permanence.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? 

Indeed. Also, every one dies at last and too soon. My morning pilgrimage began at the Pine Grove Cemetery, a secluded loop of hilltop pavement that was my favourite early childhood bicycling spot, where since my later childhood, my mother has rested. I sat under the tall tree behind her grave, and spoke to her, as if she could hear. I suspended my rudimentary understanding of science and my professional study of theology, and spent a few minutes allowing myself be in a holy space and talk to Mom. I talked about things I think she’d be proud of. I am a pastor now. I live in Canada. She brought me along with her for Sundays at church and summers in Canada. Those are her fault. Yes, God did it. But God used her to do it. I am a father. My twin daughters, having never met her, inherited so much from her. Things I can readily identify, like a crooked smile. Things I do not remember well enough to know were from my mother, but that just provoke a slight sense of déjà-vu when I see in my daughters. I talked about things I am not proud of. Not necessarily ashamed of, but not proud of. I am taking a leave from my PhD programme. I am tired. I am overwhelmed. I just don’t want to right now. I am getting divorced. I know mom understands that one. I wish she’d give me a hug and remind me God still loves me. It was always more credible from her. I had a few favours to ask her. Some prayerful intercessions to St. Virginia of Pembroke (Papal approval pending, but I stand by it). Asked her if she’d say pass along hellos to my grandmothers. Maybe have a persuasive conversation or two up there, to see if the heavenly meddling mothers could work together to help out their kids on earth.

I walked across coastal fields, through forests of birch and maple and elm and oak, past fern-lined brooks, over marshes, overlooked rivers and ocean, and past countless crumbly stonewalls in the woods, testaments to ancestors who cleared this lands for farms, long before the forest’s triumphant return. Like the poet Mary Oliver, “I don’t know exactly what prayer is.” I’m a Christian pastor with ten years of religious post-secondary education. But the more I pray, the less I know what it is or how to define it. Thursday was “my pay attention,” “fall down into the grass,” “be idle and blessed,” prayer day. It calmed me. I deal with a moderate level of anxiety. Severe enough that if someone is late, my first thought is to assume they have died in a horrific car crash, but moderate enough that I do move on to second and third thoughts of other possible explanations, before, and this is key, before I start to cry. It’s “manageable.”

I walked. I rested. I pondered. I selfied a failed handstand attempt. And I pondered about death. I thought about my mother’s death. I thought about friends and acquaintances from middle school and high school who have already died. I thought about friends reeling from their own parent’s deaths. I worry about my own death. Not with fear, or denial, but knowing from my own experience what the death of a parent can do to a child, knowing from my own experience that parents sometimes die before seeing their babies grow up. I try to live each day with my daughters with the awareness that it could be my last. To make sure each hug is tight enough, each “I love you” or “Je t’aime” memorable enough. I pondered not just everyone dies at last, but so does everything. Dreams, careers, marriages. Things that we nurture, into which we pour our hearts, which we expect to last forever, die. They all die. Sometimes they die with us. And sometimes they die before us. And so I prayed and I grieved among the simple and spectacular beauty of the salt marshes and ferns.

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

Oh so much. I plan oh so much. I do, admittedly, so much less. Being back home reminded me of all that I had planned to do in my teenage years. In grade seven, I did the Constitutional math to realize that in 2020, I would be eligible to run for president. My campaign for president is indefinitely suspended. Yet, it is not all disappointments. I was going to be the lead in a drama club play, graduate top of my class, go to Harvard or Yale, move to Québec, and live happily ever after raising a family with the perfect woman. I never got a lead role and never gave the valedictorian speech, having dropped out of high school after tenth grade for a lucrative career in ballroom dance and historical reenactment.  But somehow I did go to Harvard, got to give the graduation speech, and then on to Yale, before finally, moving to Québec. Where I am now. I am no longer interested in marrying a perfect woman. I am hopeful that I’ll still find someone bright and compassionate and loyal who laughs at my jokes who would like to spend this wild and precious life hanging out with me, loving me for who I am and letting me love her for who she is.

It would be patently ridiculous to look at oneself at thirty-two and presume aged wisdom. And yet, to have not learned anything, to not at least be wiser than before would be even more ridiculous.

I have done some of the things I had once planned. I have forever lost the chance for some of the things I once planned. I have lost some chances from the past only to be confused to suddenly find them again. But all the plans, fulfilled, unfulfilled, and changed, have shaped the journey thus far.

I plan to read more books and fewer newspaper articles. I plan to let people be wrong on the internet. To quietly read utter bull$%&! in a comment section, and leave it. I plan on finding my abs… I remember seeing them about ten years ago. If I run, bicycle, hike, and swim enough this summer, maybe they’ll come back. I plan to pray more. Anglican Daily Offices, Reform Siddur, muttering under trees, kneeling besides grass to be idle and be blessed, every technique from my Pentecostal childhood, my Mormon adolescence, my Anglican and United present. I plan to ask someone on a date. But probably not soon. Holy crap. Not soon. But I plan on one day having confidence. Yes, “having confidence” itself is one of the plans. I plan on showering two little girls with love and kisses and tickles and snuggles and bedtime stories. I plan on pouring my heart into my work every day. To combat loneliness and isolation through meals and activities and chats online and chats in my office. To offer holy communion in its social and sacramental senses whenever and wherever I can.

I think these are good plans. As long as I think that, I will work toward them. If I ever stop thinking that, I will change my plans.

There are many things I plan for this one wild and precious life.

One thing I do not plan to do is to change the world. Not alone. Not in this life. Jesus prayed, famously that God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and I used to think that was a command to us who call ourselves Christians. And it is. To us. But it was also a prayer. Because Jesus himself could not even make it happen. Not alone. Not in his one earthly wild and precious life.

I cannot love everyone, but I can love those I encounter. Sometimes that love means a smile and a hello. Sometimes that love means holding a hand as someone dies. Sometimes that love means kissing the boo-boos. Once, I hope, that love will mean looking eye to eye and saying “I do” or “Oui, je le veux.” I do not, cannot, should not, love all I meet in the same way, but I can love them. I cannot solve global injustices or eradicate poverty or stop climate change. But I can take ever so small steps to help where I am with whom I am. I can only touch my corner of the world: some youth and young adults in the Anglican and United Churches around Montréal; two children who, thank God, still throw themselves on me and demand snuggles; a circle of friends whose paths have crossed mine. Other people have bigger corners, other people have smaller corners. We do not entirely get to pick what corner of the world we’re given. But it is the only one we’re called to change.

Living is the act of confronting inevitable change. Sometimes growth, sometimes deterioration, but our bodies and our surroundings are defiantly refusing permanence. But I have one wild and precious life to shape that change. Everything around me will die, all around me new life will spring up. I plan to be loved and to love among it all.