I discovered this Mary Oliver poem a few years ago, during the summer of 2010. It was a glorious summer, the sort of moment in time I think back on fondly and with a solid dose of nostalgia. I had the best community of friends I’d yet to experience. I was falling in love with Ben, this amazing person who had suddenly landed in my life, entirely unexpected, making me laugh at ever turn. I was realizing that my life was actually rather well ordered, and perhaps the whole being-an-adult-in-the-real-world thing could be pretty okay after all.
That summer, my friends and I went to Chicago. We visited college friends and got a special back-rooms tour of the Field Museum with my aunt, who worked there at the time. We visited Floriole, a cafe I’d long wanted to visit, where we sampled multiple baked goods and were thoroughly charmed by the neighborhood. It remains a favorite to this day, the one spot I’m sure to visit whenever I’m in that city. I picked up treats on my next visit to enjoy in the park nearby, lunched there with Ben a few years later on the day we got engaged on a pier by the lake, took my mom there when we went to Chicago to shop for my wedding dress.
But the above moments and the chocolate hazelnut tart from Floriole are about all I remember from that summer’s trip, aside from the fact that it was hot and humid, Midwestern summer at its finest. I felt so free and alive and refreshed, the world full of possibility. It was afterward that I first read this poem, and it’s an understatement to say that it resonated.
The wonder Mary Oliver describes is where I, too, land in my reflections on life, the world, all that we experience. There’s so much that’s unknown, making me all the more grateful for every drop of clarity. The question of what to do remains ever hazy, but there are moments, shining ones, where that fact doesn’t matter at all.
I wish you those, in abundance, these summer days.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver (from House of Light, 1990)
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?
Tomato & Nectarine Salad
This combination, in various iterations, is one of my favorite things to eat in the summer. I included a version of it in my most recent set of recipes for Edible San Francisco. What follows is a very basic outline, but it’s all you need. Add other herbs if you like, or slices of avocado. Leave out the cheese if you don’t have any. Use peaches instead of nectarines. Serve with good bread, or mix the ingredients in a bowl instead of arranging on a plate and pile the whole thing on garlic-rubbed toast. You just can’t go wrong!
Heirloom tomatoes, sliced thinly into 1/2-inch rounds or wedges
Cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)
Just-ripe nectarines, sliced into 1/2-inch thick wedges
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Freshly cracked black pepper
A good, creamy cheese—options include, but are not limited to, torn burrata, slices of fresh mozzarella, dollops of ricotta (I like sheep’s milk), crumbled goat cheese, cubed feta
Fresh basil, roughly torn or sliced into ribbons (chiffonade)
Fresh mint, tarragon and/or chives, torn or sliced (optional)
Arrange the tomatoes and nectarines on a large platter. Drizzle generously with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Top with flaky sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and allow to sit for several minutes for the flavors to meld. Add as much cheese as you like, and finish with lots of herbs.