The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light of the trees –
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.”
from Twelve Moons, by Mary Oliver
Recently, a friend paid me a compliment. He thanked me for paying attention. I was stunned, honored. Until he put it into words, I hadn’t quite realized how much I long to do just that, to pay attention. And I hesitate even to mention it. I worry that when I write on a topic, I will come across as speaking from some exalted level of mastery. Don’t believe it. I speak from my struggles, and the topics I return to again and again are those in which I face the fiercest battles.
This one, for example, paying attention…I’ve been thinking lately about the phrase, how my attention has to be paid. It has value, and there is a cost. I know my attention is valuable, because something is always vying for it. More accurately, countless things are vying for it, some with terrible ferocity. Friends who live in distant parts of the country need to tell me about their latest adventure or discovery. The planet swarms with stories of violence and upheaval, and the media is poised to share them all. The closet is developing some sort of a mold problem. It smells musty, and everything in it is powdered with greenish-gray dust. The washing machine is leaking. The car really ought to be vacuumed. I was supposed to call my Nanny this week. I know she loves to hear from me. My kids need clothes for the fall. They need snacks. They need someone to read them stories and guide them through their conflicts and help them clean up and arrange craft time and so on. The bathtub needs scrubbing. I need to make a grocery list. There are some blogs forming in my mind. I need to get them on paper. A dozen friends and acquaintances have posted blogs, just today, that are brilliant and insightful. I need to read them and comment. I’m wondering about how I’m going to work out the kinks in this next draft of my book. How long has it been since my husband and I went on a date? Ugh. Too long.
The tendency, in the midst of the ridiculous flurry of life, is to try to take the offensive. I will be present with my children, with my spouse, with my work, with my friends. I will schedule an hour to chat. I will pencil in some quiet time for prayer and introspection. The next time my daughter flashes one of those perfect, elusive smiles, I will have the camera ready to capture it. I will journal. I will read thoughtful blogs about the value of the moment and the necessity of putting my phone away. In short, I will wrestle the present to the ground. I will master it.
But, “…you don’t run down the present,” Annie Dillard says, “pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.” Mary Oliver seems to have the same idea. In order to learn, in order to fully experience the moment, she did not approach the slow river with a journal or a camera. Her exercise was, for a while, to be nothing, to be nothing so that she might learn something.
In order to pay attention, then, I mustn’t take control of my life. I must surrender. The price of attention is a kind of emptying of self. That rich lens is clear, transparent. No other images cloud the view. So when I sit down to dinner with my family, I abandon the goal of connection. I empty myself of my spinning thoughts, of the expectations I might have had for our time together, of the list of tasks still to be completed. I become a clear lens, and I pay attention to the people who sit across the table from me. I leave the camera in the closet, and I watch. A silly smile blooms on my daughter’s face. She lifts her tiny spoon to her mouth, and three black-eyed peas fall into her lap. The others survive the journey. They’re dumped into her mouth, and she chews them a few times before shifting them into her cheeks and into the soft pocket between her lower teeth and her lower lip. She swings her feet in her high chair.
I listen as my son tells me about the things he’s discovered in the backyard. He has taken it upon himself to cut all the dead leaves off the plants in the garden. He has cleaned the place up, using his scissors, and the little brown blots on our lovely garden plot have been cleared away. He is so excited about his contribution. His eyes sparkle, and his grin is wide.
I talk to a friend who is feeling low. As much as I am able, I forget whatever it is I wanted to say next, and I turn on her the clear lens of my attention. I listen. I notice the way she moves as she speaks, the things her eyes and hands tell that her mouth never will. I see her, and my seeing is my gift, to both of us.
“The dream of my life is to lie down by a slow river…”
I want to pay the price of attention by clearing the screen, draining my vision of all that clouds it, emptying my mind of all that distracts it. I want to lay down my arms, to reclaim the present not by battle but by surrender, “to learn something by being nothing for a little while.” To ignore the phone and the camera, to leave the pen on the desk. To wait, empty-handed, for the magic of the present, so that I might be filled to overflowing.