In the last few months, Mary Oliver’s words, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” play in surround-sound in my head. I’ve talked in-depth about paying attention, looking at the sky, finding the pulse of the sun’s rays, scouring the ground to see the welcome that sits at your feet and listening to the whispers of what your world is trying to convey to you, whether it comes in the form of conversation or your observations.
This kind of living doesn’t come without its good and bad consequences. Focusing on the sky, the clouds floating above forming its own city, offers a comfort I am unable to convey completely. It’s one of those places you must experience to understand the full meaning of this kind of paying attention. It’s easy for me to point my finger to this goodness – there are countless other examples – the childlike laughter of my daughter, the text message from my mom, the jokes only my husband and I understand and the gratitude I experience every single time I walk or run outdoors. These are moments where devotion tilts toward the magical mundane, a theme of this space and an anthem I try to incorporate in my daily life. I still believe true living comes from the epiphanies we experience in the car pool lane, in the line at the grocery store or on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the privacy of a favorite room in the house.
The sky was my first indication that where light takes refuge, darkness also lingers. The beginning of devotion sometimes harbors embracing painful moments. It can be a spontaneous occurrence, but it happens. A few weeks ago, I intersected with a woman, who stood next to her companion, an oxygen tank. It took this observation and a millisecond for me to remember again, those days where I stood vigil next to my father’s oxygen tank, cranking the lever to the highest level and listening to my father say, “I don’t think it’s working, Rudri. Can you help me?” I think in this singular moment, I morphed from child to an adult. I couldn’t help him. The cancer wouldn’t let me. The paying attention will open wounds when you least expect it – a commercial about a lung cancer drug or a story from a friend about how she had a wonderful conversation with her father or the sounds of my little girl running toward her Daddy when he returns home from work. Oh, the reminders of how fragile we all are exist everywhere. And when you ardently pay attention, it is a devotion that comes with complicated emotions.
Paying attention can also mean realizing all the montage of all the moments that bring you headfirst into the current seconds of your life. The mourning of youth, of how things were, the first few moments of motherhood, the witnessing of various milestones, the weddings, baby showers and revisiting old photographs, realizing there are fences that will continue to warp in the rain and will likely never be mended. It’s the consummate balance, trying to jockey between the paying attention that offers comfort and the paying attention that pushes you to recognize pain. Some days I am full from this goodness, while in other periods, I am gutted and hollowed. The thought of these experiences, mine and yours, headed to a dénouement, makes paying attention a risky business.
But what is the alternative? Skimming the surface, moving about life like skipping stones? I am not certain that lends to any palpable satisfaction. Ultimately, sinking into the comfort and melancholy create the opportunity for the truest form of paying attention. And also lends to a more examined life. Perhaps that’s why Mary Oliver says, “something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” Yes, indeed.