Posts Tagged ‘attention’

Oct 2013 001

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

I have never met Mary Oliver, but I consider her one of my teachers.

A published poet since 1963, Oliver has written hundreds, probably thousands, of poems during her lifetime, producing more than 25 books of poetry and three books of nonfiction to date. She writes about early morning walks in the woods or along the shoreline; finding the footprints of animals in the forest or near a lake; the tension between the fleeting beauty of the natural world and its undertones of violence, death and decay. She harbors a deep love for the world we inhabit, and a deep sadness for the ways humans mar or destroy the quiet, lonely places where animals and plants live.

I doubt Oliver ever cared much for clothes and fashion, but if she did, she gave up that particular passion long ago. She has learned what is worth caring about, and what she can easily ignore:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

This is what I need to learn, amid my distracted and often scattered life, amid my commute and my day job, amid the relentless pull of social media and relationships online and offline. I need to learn to pause, on my front porch or in the park or even on the subway platform, and pay attention to the
natural world, to the details that astonish.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine again today, sharing my thoughts on Oliver’s poetry. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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cambridge ma forsythia yellow spring

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
Adam Zagajewski

My friend Kari posted this poem last week, and that night, I came across it in the last section of Caroline Kennedy’s lovely poetry anthology She Walks in Beauty. Then it showed up in Shelf Awareness on Friday, as all of Boston waited with bated breath for the police to catch the second bombing suspect. I have been thinking about it ever since, as I move through this world we live in, so beautiful and yet so broken.

Life is, mostly, back to “business as usual” in Boston. This is a tough town, as the new city motto – Boston Strong – indicates. It will take more than a bombing to put it off-kilter for long. But alongside the displays of strength and courage, the grief lingers.

On Monday afternoon, I gathered with colleagues in the small garden next to our building for a moment of silence, as many others across the city did the same. Our dean read the names of the fallen, and then we all stood still and silent as the church bells began to ring. Above us, the sun skittered in and out of the clouds as we stood huddled in our coats. The weight of our grief was palpable. And yet I felt profoundly grateful to be there, sharing this moment with my community.

Our world is beautiful, and it is broken. We cannot always prevent or heal the brokenness, but I believe we can find solace in praise.

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boston public garden pink tulips

The Tables Turned (An Evening Scene on the Same Subject)

(A response to “Expostulation and Reply.”)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

uni parks

This is my favorite Wordsworth poem, especially at this time of year, when the budding trees and plants are begging for “a heart that watches and receives.” I love books, probably more than the next person, but I believe there is a time to set them aside and soak up the loveliness and wisdom of nature. (Though it’s turned chilly again in Boston, and I am hoping for more warm weather soon.)

Also, this poem fits perfectly with my word for the yearattention.

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quiet creativity in progress

When we would talk about our future in private, I would ask Mark if he really thought we had a chance. Of course we had a chance, he’d say, and anyway, it didn’t matter if this venture failed. In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right. This sounded extremely fishy to me.

—Kristin Kimball, The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love (bold emphasis mine)

I’ve been thinking about these words since I read them in Kimball’s memoir about building a farm from scratch in upstate New York, with the man who is now her husband.

Before they met, Kristin was a New York writer, with a closetful of high heels, an apartment in the East Village and a fast-paced, urban life. When she met Mark, it was nearly love at first sight – but it still took great courage (and not a little blind faith) for her to pull up stakes and move to the boondocks with this energetic, low-tech, handsome, stubborn farmer.

Her memoir gives the gory details of their first year of farming: watching a cow give birth, finding kittens dead in the barnyard after a weasel sneaked in, all sorts of weather- and equipment-related disasters. But the book is also suffused with joy: the sheer and simple joy of creating a home, out of dirt and seeds and tools and hard work.

Although Kristin freely admitted her doubts, she gradually came to believe that this difficult, exhausting, bone-wearying project they’d taken on would be worth it in the end. More: she came to believe it was worth it in the present. Even as they ran into setback after setback, she had never been more fulfilled in her life, or believed more deeply in anything she’d undertaken.

These days, I have a hard time believing in Mark’s recipe for satisfaction. Regular life – commuting and working, grocery shopping, surviving another Boston winter, keeping in touch with friends and family, finding time to spend with my husband – seems to take a monumental effort. At the end of the day, I rarely have enough energy left over to write, or to do anything creative and fulfilling. I spend a lot of time wishing things were easier, simpler. I am dreaming daily of hopping a plane to Oxford or Paris, or the more humble plains of West Texas. Escaping my life, instead of digging into it.

But Kristin’s words, and recent posts from Addie about “the messy middle” and Sarah about finding wisdom in the everyday, are nudging me to reconsider. To try the hard things, again and again, even if they’re as mundane as getting up in the morning, dealing with paperwork and unanswered emails, or as intimidating as doing some real writing, the kind I’ve been avoiding for weeks now.

I don’t want to spend my life spinning my wheels, or avoiding the hard things because they’re hard. I want to try them, even if – or when – I sometimes fail. I want to be brave, and keep showing up for my life. Even when I’d rather be anywhere else.

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Hello, friends. Happy New Year. I hope your holidays, however you celebrated, have been merry and bright.

For the last few Decembers, I’ve spent time choosing (or discovering) a word to guide me through the year to come. Sometimes, like this year, that word gets a bit lost in the continuing shuffle of my daily routine, of commutes and obligations and books and social media. (I am learning not to beat myself up when this happens.)

Some words, as with my 2010 word, “brave,” resonate through my life like a deep gong, providing a key and a touchstone for many experiences. (I still wear the word “brave” around my neck.) And sometimes, as with my 2011 word (“comfort”), the result falls somewhere in between.

brave necklace pendant word sunlight

My word for 2013 came from three different books which pointed up a continuing need in my life: the need to be present, to stop walking through life distracted, to wish or plan or dream away the moments that are happening now. The first passage is one I read years ago, from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath, and it has remained in my heart ever since:

You don’t find candles lit in frenetic houses; you find them lit in houses where people are trying to pay attention.


candle tulips table light

This summer, before taking a writing workshop with Lauren at the Glen, I read her latest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, and was stunned by this passage:

Five years after her funeral, it is as if my mother has reached up from the grave and pulled my head, held my head the way a person holds a cat by the scruff of the neck, and said: There; look there. [...]

I want her to know that I am trying. I am trying to pay attention. I am trying to look.

And finally, Barbara Brown Taylor spoke eloquently to the value of attention in our everyday lives:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.

An Altar in the World

I know that attention is not a magic cure: some days will still be mundane or dark or difficult, even when I give them my full attention. But I believe attention garners rich rewards when we make it a practice: we notice flashes of light, literal and metaphorical, that we might miss otherwise. I live in a city and a culture where everyone is often most focused on themselves and their own problems. What would happen, I wonder, if I turned some of my attention outward, to the people and places and things among whom I walk?

This year, I intend to find out.

I want more wonder in my life, more quiet focus, more moments when I am aware of being fully present to the here and now. Less distraction, and greater clarity. I am hoping to gain some of all these things by paying attention.

Do you, or have you, chosen a word for the year? If you have, I’d love to hear about it.

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From mid-September to early November, E.B. White’s collected letters lived on my bedside table. At nearly 700 pages, it’s too heavy to carry on the subway and hold in one hand, so I kept it at home, dipping into it morning and evening.

After reading a fascinating biography of White and then his essays last fall, I found his letters at the Brattle (complete with newspaper clippings from 1977 featuring an interview with White and a New Yorker tribute to his wife, Katharine, after her death). Intimidated by the collection’s size, I let it sit on my shelf for a year.

e.b. white writer dachshund dog minnie

(Image from amsaw.org)

Once I finally picked it up, I found myself charmed again by White’s keen eye, dry humor and gift for understatement. His life may have been quiet, but it was peopled with fascinating characters, including Katharine; Harold Ross, longtime editor of The New Yorker; fellow writers; his family members; and Ursula Nordstrom, the longtime children’s editor at Harper’s, whose letters I also read and loved.

As I read White’s letters, chuckling at his witty observations (and frequently reading the choicest bits aloud to J), I kept thinking of a scene from The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. Polynesia, the Doctor’s wise parrot, is talking to the narrator, Tommy Stubbins, a boy who will become the Doctor’s new assistant. She dismisses his worries about never having been to school, but when he wonders if he could learn animal language, she asks him a vital question:

Are you a good noticer? Do you notice things well?

White often doubted his own skill as a writer, even as he wrote weekly essays and shorter pieces for The New Yorker, and worked on his three books for children. He never quite understood all the fuss people made over him and his work. He harbored a deep love for New York, where he was born and raised, even writing a gorgeous, elegiac essay about it. But as he grew older, he spent more and more time on his farm in Brooklin, Maine, raising chickens and pigs and various other animals, followed around by his dogs.

White was, at times, a poet, a social critic, a quixotic dreamer, a children’s novelist, a newspaperman, a humorist, an amateur cartoonist and an essayist. But at all times, in all places, he was a good noticer. His precise observations of daily life, his keen insights into human nature, all hinged on his powers of observation. His noticing, and the care he took in writing down his noticing, are what makes his letters so much fun to read.

Do you enjoy reading collections of letters? (I love them.) And are you a good noticer?

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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Let us remember . . . that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

—Christian Wiman

I have been craving poetry lately, reading an entire volume of Robert Frost and a luminous chapbook by Gregory Orr, and returning to the words of Marie Howe and W.S. Merwin almost daily. The world can be a grim place, whether I’m battling the mundane frustrations of crowded commutes and grey rainy days and maddening to-do lists that seem to multiply overnight, or worrying over the larger issues of pain and hunger and need that plague so many people, in so many different ways.

As a bookworm, I am tempted to hide behind books when life is either colorless or painful, and sometimes escaping into a sweeping story or a beloved tale (or even a witty volume of letters) is just the ticket. But ultimately, hiding from my life and the world is neither productive nor satisfying. And poetry, with its brief, searching lines that often break me wide open, provides a way for me to pay more attention to both my life and the world around me. And when I start to pay more attention, to lean into the moments and middles and mundanities, I often find hope and beauty there. I often find sorrow and frustration, too, but poetry helps me realize that grief and ennui do not have the last word.

Do you read poetry – for this reason or for others? What helps you inhabit your life more fully? And what are the poems, or other words, you return to over and over?

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Many years ago now, a wise old priest invited me to come speak to his church in Alabama. “What do you want me to talk about?” I asked him.

“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered.  [...]

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

I read these words a couple of weeks ago, in the introduction to Taylor’s luminous second book, which made me nod and say “Amen” and itch to underline quotes and scribble notes in the margins. (I didn’t, because it was a library book, but I am buying my own copy ASAP and it will be underlined, you can bet.)

Every day since, these words have been ringing in my ears and I’m asking myself, “What is saving my life now?” It has become the question I want to ask people instead of “How are you?” (which we know most people don’t answer honestly anyway). What is saving your life now?

orange tulips flowers spring garden

Sometimes flowers save my life.

Sometimes the small and mundane saves my life – tangible, life-giving objects like a sturdy pair of re-soled boots or a plate of steaming homemade enchiladas or a mug of tea that heats both my fingers and my core with its warmth. Frequently it’s community, those hilarious texts from my sister or those just-checking-in phone calls from my mother or husband, those chats over tea with my girlfriends on Tuesday nights, those tweets, emails or letters from far-away friends.

Words are the way I make sense of the world, so writing often saves my life: either struggling over my memoir pages for the Glen East Workshop in just over a month (!), or typing frantically on the super-secret project that fills my daydreams these days. Sometimes the books, the inviting stacks of stories and memoir and poetry that cover most of my coffee table, contain the words that save my life on any given day.

Most often, though, all these things add up to the same thing that is saving both Taylor’s life and mine: the insistent call to the difficult but rewarding task of paying attention, of looking other people in the eye, of noticing not only my life but theirs too. What is saving my life now is the practice of trying to live it, even when it is drab or lonely or uncomfortable, so that, as Mary Oliver says, I do not “end up simply having visited this world.”

What is saving your life now? I really want to know.

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lighting candles

Some thoughts from Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath, a little jewel of a book about Christian and Jewish spiritual practices, on candle-lighting:

“Even though – or perhaps because – literal illumination is as easy as, well, the flip of a switch, there’s something remarkable about a candle. There seems to be no surer way to sacralize time or space than lighting a candle, and no quieter quiet than the silence of candlelight.”

“Candles seem to create peace. You don’t find candles lit in frenetic houses; you find them lit in houses where people are trying to pay attention.”

“I like to keep [candles] lit whenever I am home. Even when I am just lighting two thin tapers over dinner, I like to think about the light of Christ rectifying the sin by which came death to the world. The Light of Christ, I sometimes say to myself. Thanks be to God.

Thought-provoking and beautiful. And true in the very best sense.

I think I’ll light a candle when I get home tonight.

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