Photograph by David Niddrie
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
So wrote the poet Mary Oliver.
In that spirit, I ask people, “What would you do with your one wild and precious day?” — your Big Day?
A lot of people have trouble coming up with an answer.
Well, I hint, one use of Big Days could be to indulge neglected passions – or develop new ones. But quite often people don’t know what their passions are.
This sounds strange, but I think I get it. We’re often too overwhelmed to give this question much thought. We don’t have time to tap into what we want to do, because we’re too busy doing what we have to do. There’s no discretionary time to think about discretionary time.
So in case you’re one of those people, here are some ideas. Maybe they’ll speak to you and maybe they won’t, but they’ll at least get you thinking about what you’ve been too busy to think about.
1) Create an “Ultraviolet” dinner for someone you love
Ultraviolet is an experimental restaurant in Shanghai. It’s known for serving up not just dinner but a kind of performance art — an “immersive dining experience.” As you and your party sit at the table – there’s only one table — waiters bring out your multi-course meal a dish at a time. Each course is choreographed to music, and to images projected on the walls and table. (For example, one recent meal featured gourmet caperberry fish and chips. It emerged to the accompaniment of thunderstorm sounds and raindrops, which gave way to the Beatles and a Union Jack.)
With a decent sound system, a projector and a full day to plan, shop and cook a meal, you could pull of an ersatz Ultraviolet dinner in your own home. Bet it’d be unforgettable.
2) Prepare for a catastrophe
The prospect of being slammed by The Really Big One is just remote enough, and abstract enough, and unlikely enough, that most people never face it. But a day is all it takes to put a sound plan in your back pocket. Totally worth it for the peace of mind.
You’ll want to design and stock an earthquake kit, run through drills (do you know how to shut off the gas?), create an emergency-contact phone tree, retrofit your house a bit (bookcases attached to the walls with screws, etc.), prepare an evacuation plan. Consider getting the neighborhood or your kids’ school involved. There are ways to make the whole deal kind of fun.
Just do this. If you need a kick in the pants, read this.
3) Write a song for someone
Assuming most of us don’t have the chops to compose music, we’re probably talking about writing the lyrics. You might spend the morning thinking deeply about your audience, probing the nature of songwriting itself (Dylan’s Chronicles is a good place to start, and there are great podcasts like this one that get into the nitty gritty of the art.) Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you have captured something approaching the soul of this person. When you’re done, hire your favorite local indie musician to score it. Then arranged to have it performed for your friend. (Here’s an example of how this can work.)
4) Bring a dear relative back to life
By which I mean, spend a day imagining yourself into their life as they lived it.
In WWII, my father was a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His crew manned a Lancaster bomber as part of the “Pathfinder” squadron — a crucial but incredibly dangerous assignment. My sisters and I could never get Dad to talk about what it was like. When we asked, he always had the same answer: “I hope you never find out.”
But I do want to find out, roundabout, and I think I’ve found a way. The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in England has working, refurbished Lanc bombers, and they offer visitors a whole day where historians explain the details of those missions. I can board the plane, sit where Dad sat, and taxi down the runway. It won’t literally bring him back, but it will help bring him back figuratively — and that is a gift.
See if you can find a similar way to walk in the steps of someone you loved and lost.
5) Whet the axe
Abraham Lincoln is credited with the line, “If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two sharpening the axe.” It’s likely apocryphal, but the quote is right in spirit. Preparation is key to any really daunting job.
Think of the biggest project you’d like to finish while you’re still above ground. This Big Day involves thinking — just thinking — about how you’re going to pull it off.
The writer John McPhee, before starting in on one of his book-length New Yorker features, would go to his office and sit there for eight or ten hours, musing on structure, character, strategy. He called this “sweeping the ice,” preparatory to throwing the curling rock of his research. (And not actually researching anything is key at this stage. It’s about consolidating your own thoughts.)
What’s your next big life project? Maybe renovating the house? Planning a big trip for your sabbatical year? Considering a career change?